Remembering Walter Mondale’s Stirring Defense of Church/State Separation April 20, 2021

Remembering Walter Mondale’s Stirring Defense of Church/State Separation

With the death of former Vice President Walter Mondale last night, most articles rightly point out that he was the first major party candidate to select a female running mate, that he lost the presidential race decisively in 1984, and that he expanded the role of the VP.

But here’s something you won’t see everywhere: Mondale was a strong advocate for keeping church and state separate. At a time when Ronald Reagan was extremely cozy with the Religious Right — even fighting to pass a constitutional amendment to get mandatory prayers back in public schools — Mondale had the guts to say religion shouldn’t guide national policies.

Rob Boston of Americans United calls our attention to a speech Mondale gave to the Jewish group B’nai B’rith in 1984, just two months before the election. (Both candidates spoke to the group that day.)

I believe in an America that has been a home and refuge for people from every faith. Our Government is the protector of every faith because it is the exclusive property of none.

I believe in an America that honors what Thomas Jefferson first called the “wall of separation between church and state.” That freedom has made our faith unadulterated and unintimidated. It has made Americans the most religious people on earth. Today, the religion clauses of the First Amendment do not need to be fixed; they need to be followed.

The Queen of England, where state religion is established, is called Defender of the Faith. But the President of the United States is the defender of the Constitution, which defends all faiths.

No President should attempt to transform policy debates into theological disputes. He must not let it be thought that political dissent from him is un-Christian. And he must not cast opposition to his programs as opposition to America.

It’s almost frightening how easily those words could apply to the politics of today, where one party continues to push Christian Nationalism while decrying all opponents as anti-God or anti-Christian. We’re fortunate that after several years of Christian Right rule, the people currently in power aren’t beholden to a single religious force. But imagine if our side didn’t have to constantly play defense because both parties had respect for that basic constitutional principle.

Writes Boston:

Two months later, Mondale was soundly beaten by Reagan. But the vision of religious freedom he outlined to B’nai B’rith remains powerful and inspiring. Our nation would be a better place today if we were to fully embrace it.

It’s not too late to embrace it. But the work remains challenging in large part because Republicans know how easy it is to score points with their base by merging God and government.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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