Passing the Religious Litmus Test

Do you think the U.S. could ever elect a non-Christian, agnostic, or atheist to the presidency? The Constitution explicitly states:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (link)

Lately, America seems inclined to only elect candidates who make religion a visible part of their lives. In spite of our founding as a nation built on religious freedom, the most extreme beliefs end up running the show. Look at the Republican party during the last ten years. No one believes that the entire Republican party is Evangelical. However, Evangelicals are one of the loudest sub-sections and their opinion has resonated, resulting in public policy decisions that favor their beliefs. And it’s no longer enough to be religious. Your flavor of religion is of equal if not greater interest.

The voting public that shares this belief assumes that if they know a candidate’s religion they can stop asking questions. These voters then take that assumption to the next level and believe that one can predict a candidate’s position based on how she worships. Last I checked, a candidate was declaring that she would represent ALL her constitutes, not only the religious ones.

When Being Religious Isn’t Enough

Recent weeks have shown that religion will play a role in the coming presidential election, at least through the Republican primaries, due to Mitt Romney’s membership in the Mormon church. Jeff Jacoby’s recent editorial for The Boston Globe discusses comments challenging Romney’s fitness as a candidate based on his religion. Jacoby makes the point that “a candidate’s public record has far more to say about his fitness for office than his private devotions do.”

Others have made the comparison before, but I’m struck by how much this situation reminds me of the John F. Kennedy Catholic question. Kennedy’s bold speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association seems particularly relevant today. Like now, bigger issues than a candidate’s religion were at play in the country:

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 campaign; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers only 90 miles from the coast of Florida—the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power—the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms—an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. (link)

In spite of these pressing issues, people stilled wondered if Kennedy would be the Pope’s president. Kennedy cleared up that concern:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him. (link)

With the Catholic twist, Kennedy then makes a plea similar to one made by many candidates:

…judge me on the basis of 14 years in the Congress,…do not judge me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and rarely relevant to any situation here. And always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948 which strongly endorsed Church-State separation, and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic. (link)

What We Will Miss

Romney could make a comparable speech (so far he has shown no public interest in doing so). Most of the fears Kennedy broached in his speech could easily apply to Romney and his Mormon religion. I believe the most powerful part of Kennedy’s speech comes towards the end, when he says:

But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people. (link)

Who are we as a nation if we’ll pass over an ethical, highly qualified candidate if he doesn’t sit next to us in the pew on Sunday? What leadership will we miss if we decide it’s more important that we share the same beliefs with a candidate? I’ve reached a point in life where what you do the other six days of the week is as, if not more, important than what you do on Sunday (or Saturday for that matter).

Romney may end up being the worse choice out of the lot, but that evaluation should be based on his record as a candidate not his record of worship. I worry what will happen to this country if, like abortion, we make religion an absolute litmus test for holding public office. A candidate’s religion doesn’t cost me more tax dollars, her public policy decisions do. So here’s to measuring a candidate based on what he does in office rather than who he worships. The strict Constitutionalists screaming about activist judges should appreciate that.


2 Responses to “Passing the Religious Litmus Test”

  1. July 18, 2007 at 6:04 am

    Do you think having Carter, then Reagan, then Clinton, as two Democratic presidents really upped the ante for candidates to show off their faith?

    I don’t recall Bush I as being particularly faith-driven, and certainly not Dole. But when I saw Tony Blair professing his faith, I thought, this is a Clinton legacy…

  2. 2 Britt
    July 18, 2007 at 6:28 am

    Carter’s religion always seemed a part of him. Reagan never felt overtly religious, and Clinton seemed more inclined to use it to get out of trouble when he required our “forgiveness.”

    Bush I didn’t have the same kind of “moral” issues plaguing his presidency, so religion didn’t enter the conversation. And I suspect some of it was a generation thing too, which also includes Dole. You didn’t talk about those kinds of things in public. You didn’t wear religion on your sleeve. Your actions spoke for you.

    Personally, I think the ante was upped by 9/11. Studies showed a resurgence in religious belief and attendance following the attacks. And while interest has died down in the majority since then, it’s only gained traction within minority sections of the population. They’ve stayed vocal, organized, and demanded political attention.

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