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Is the President America's Pastor in Chief?
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Is the President America's Pastor in Chief?

Editor's Note: This piece is a response to "Our American President: The 'Almost Pastor' of an 'Almost Chosen' Land."

Against the backdrop of "can I vote for a Mormon?" unease among many religious voters, the Romney campaign has downplayed the relevance of religion for the presidency. We're told not to worry about a candidate's faith because the President is not a "pastor in chief." In 2012, that may be a politically savvy truism, but is it really true?

With a Mormon challenging President Obama, a Protestant, several Christian leaders have urged voters to consider credentials instead of creed. Franklin Graham spoke for many when he told ABC News: "Listen, we're not voting for the 'pastor in chief' of the Unites States. We're voting for the President. We're looking for the person that is the most qualified, a person that shares common values, a person that loves the country, a person who can lead this nation out of the economic mess that we've gotten ourselves in, and that's I thinkthe main thing for most people today."

Romney, a former Mormon bishop, has been emphatic in response to questions posed about particulars of his religious beliefs: "I'm not running for pastor in chief. I'm running for commander in chief."

Romney would, of course, not say otherwise. Suggesting that the President does play a significant, albeit informal, religious role would be perceived as committing theocratic heresy that runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

Article VI of the Constitution makes it perfectly clear that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office." But when the President pledges to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution in his oath of office, he customarily does so with his hand on the Bible and concludes with the words: "So help me God."

From George Washington's first inaugural address to President Obama's remarks following the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado, American presidents have routinely invoked God in ways that more or less reflect mainstream religious opinion.

To be sure, that mainstream is ever evolving and expanding. But the mainstreaming of minority groups is often a contentious process, as witnessed by the consternation over Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960, Romney's Mormonism today, and the preposterous yet persistent rumor that Obama is a Muslim. Even though the nation is home to an increasing proportion of nonbelievers, a June 2012 Gallup poll found 43 percent of Americans still say they would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate.

Ironically, the curious American integration of piety and the presidency largely stems from our separation of church and state. Without an established religion led by an archbishop, ecumenical patriarch, or grand mufti, the President acts, for better or worse, as the nation's senior religious figure.

Cambridge University professor Andrew Preston makes this point in his massive, 815-page work Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy: "There is no official hierarchy in the American civil religion, but as the nation's head of state as well as its chief executive … the president has acted as its de facto pope."

What exactly are the President's papal duties? Preston explains: "Since George Washington, the president has been the interpreter of rites, symbols, and meanings of the civil religion, with some—particularly Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman—significantly recasting it under the pressure of war."

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Is the President America's Pastor in Chief?