Americans will choose a new president in less than five months, but the losers of this election are already clear – the sanctity of religion and the integrity of democracy.
The latest evidence came late last month, when Sen. Barack Obama announced his resignation from his home church. Such an important decision should have been made purely for personal or religious reasons. Instead, it was apparently driven by political considerations.
As a practicing minister, I understand how painful it is for him to leave a church that has been an important part of his life for many years. It is the church in which Senator Obama was married, and it is the church in which his children were baptized. It is a place where he apparently found a community with his neighbors and with his God.
But as president of the Interfaith Alliance, I also understand why Obama found himself in this situation. During the primary campaign, the major presidential candidates engaged in a frenzied rush to prove their religious bona fides.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign went on a self-described "faith tour" of South Carolina, based explicitly upon a verse from the Book of Esther. Senator John McCain got off the Straight Talk Express to pander to the religious right when he gave the commencement address at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
And Obama is equally at fault. Early in the race, his campaign set up a website to feature endorsements from clergy, despite the fact that tax law prohibits religious leaders from making candidate endorsements in their official capacities as men and women of God.
Last fall, he asked a South Carolina congregation to help him "become an instrument of God," despite the fact that the Constitution says no such thing.
The candidates have sought the endorsements of clergy, and both Senator McCain and Obama are now having some buyer's remorse. But candidates cannot have it both ways. They cannot continue to use clergy for political gain and then discard them when it no longer fits their agenda.
The problem is not that these presidential candidates incorporated religion into their campaigns. The problem is that the candidates have used religion as a divisive tool, instead of a unifying power.
Rather than printing campaign brochures featuring a picture of Obama in front of a giant cross with the words "committed Christian," as Obama did, candidates should tell the American people why, how, or if faith informs their policy positions.
Rather than declaring the United States to be a Christian nation, as McCain did, candidates should outline what steps they would take to respect the vast diversity of religious beliefs (and nonbeliefs) in this country.
Rather than asking the candidates to talk about when they have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit – as CNN did during a "faith forum" for Democrats earlier this year – the media should instead ask the candidates to outline their views on the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom.
If the Liberty Bell had not cracked in 1846, it most surely would have done so in 2008 thanks to the US presidential candidates.
If the meaning of the Liberty Bell's biblical inscription – "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" – is to ring true in America today, no candidate for the presidency should ever have to resign from or join a particular house of worship in order to be a viable candidate for that high office.
To make such a decision for political reasons dishonors religion and disrespects the Constitution. It makes a sad statement about American politics and an even sadder one about American religion.
Obama is at the center of the storm, but all who wed religion to partisan politics share responsibility for this tragic development.
For the sake of both religion and democracy, we must do better. Our country deserves an electoral campaign which treats religion with the same respect held by those who built the Liberty Bell.