What should have been a back-and-forth about the proper place of religious testimonials in the electoral process was instead, astonishingly, a contretemps over whether Pryor had flip-flopped on Scripture as a legislative how-to manual. The implication was that Scripture is totally suitable as such.
And while it’s tempting to attribute this silliness to a Southern politician’s need to appeal to the Christian fundamentalists prevalent in that region, the Arkansas episode is indicative of how thoroughly Americans from coast to coast let religion permeate public life.
As full of insight and beauty as the Bible is, it’s not a universally and unconditionally embraced document, and it’s certainly not a secular one. Yet it’s under the hand of almost every American president who takes the oath of office.
The centrality of religion in this country’s birth and story can’t be denied. And shouldn’t be. And having the Bible at inaugurations honors tradition more than it offends pluralism. But using the Bible as a litmus test for character betrays the principles of religious liberty and personal freedom, along with the embrace of diversity, that are equally crucial to America’s identity and strength. It also defies the wisdom of experience. How many self-anointed saints have been shown not to practice what they preach? How many of the ostentatiously faithful have fallen? Theirs is an easy pose, and sometimes an empty one.