Religion and the 2008 U.S. Presidential Race
Article 6, clause 3 of the U. S. Constitution says, “The Senators and Represenatives 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.” That sounds clear enough. Whether one is an evangelical Christian, an Orthodox Jew, an atheist, an agnostic, a Muslim, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, a Roman Catholic, a liberal Protestant, a Reform Jew, a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a believer in one of the Native American traditional religions, a Rastafarian, a Bahai’i, a Unitarian, etc., there can be no hindrance to serving in any public office including the U.S. Presidency. So, why are we talking so much about the faith of presidential candidates in 2008?
Several reasons: 1) Article 6 forbids any official, government administered religious test for public office. Unlike many of the European governments (and the governments of the colonies/states) that the Framers knew at the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified, public office cannot be restricted to members of any official church, etc. Nor can candidates be made to sign statements claiming to believe in the Trinity or any other doctrinal matters. Nothing in the official process forces any candidate for office even to discuss his or her personal faith (or lack thereof) and, in various periods of our nation’s history, many candidates have simply kept such matters to themselves. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist; John Adams and John Quincy Adams were Unitarians; Abraham Lincoln, though raised in a Baptist home, was never baptized and never joined any church. Richard Nixon was raised as a Quaker and never officially severed connections with his home Meeting, but he did very un-Quaker things such as join the army as a lawyer and later enlarge and expand wars–and his religious practice seemed to consist of hanging around with Billy Graham, reading Late Great Planet Earth, and, toward the end of his presidency, while blind drunk and paranoid about his enemies, forcing Sec. of State Henry Kissinger, a very secularized, non-practicing Jew, to pray with him on his knees. 2) But nothing in the Constitution forbids the U.S. voting public from adopting unofficial religious tests for office or from making a candidate’s religion into a campaign issue. That was done at least as far back as the presidency of Thomas Jefferson–whose reelection campaign was plagued by challenges from some conservative Christians because of Jefferson’s reputation as “an unbeliever.” Further, although this nation is not “Christian” in any official sense, the majority of its citizens claim some form of Christian faith and, through much of U.S. history, what might be called the “public culture” of the nation included an assumed “pan-Protestantism.” Thus, the religious convictions of non-Protestants have usually been given the most public scrutinty.
Now, while this is legal (what could possibly force voters to abandon any kind of religious litmus test they want to administer in the privacy of a voting booth?), I have never considered it wise. On this issue, I stand with Martin Luther who said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk [i. e., a Muslim] than a foolish Christian.” I agree with John Wesley (at least, the quote is attributed to Wesley) when he said, “If I am drowning, I would rather be noticed by a burglar who can swim than a bishop afraid of water!” Christian faith does not automatically confer special governing wisdom on all Christian politicians. Should one’s faith influence one’s politics? Of course! But not in the sense of refusing to offer reasons for public policies that are accessible to others who do not share one’s faith. (I.e., My faith convinces me that the death penalty is wrong and if I were president, I might introduce an Amendment to the Constitution that outlaws the death penalty. But if I wanted that Amendment to pass Congress and be ratified by enough state legislatures, I could not simply cite my faith as the reason. I would have to come up with arguments that others–both non-Christians and Christians who do not share my conclusions about the death penalty–could accept.) Nor in any sense that one’s faith makes one citizen a better American than another.
Americans have not always lived by this wisdom. When Al Smith (1873-1944), the hugely popular 4 term governor of New York, became the Democratic nominee for president in 1928, he was the nation’s first Irish-American and Catholic presidential nominee. Fears of Catholicism (then a minority religion in the U.S.–unlike now), and of the pope ruling the U.S. from the Vatican, were used shamefully to defeat Smith–instead of honest debate about the issues. In 1960, Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) defused similar fears by means of a famous speech before a meeting of Protestant ministers in Houston, TX in which Kennedy strongly affirmed the absolute separation of church and state. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Baptist with a sister who was a famous Pentecostal evangelist, and who was not shy about his faith, went before an audience of Catholics, Jews, and others and said the same thing–reminding folks that the Baptist tradition has traditionally been deeply supportive of church-state separation. (Later, evangelicals who wanted Carter to act theocratically abandoned him when he was true to his word.)
Then, beginning in 1980, the Religious Right (fundamentalist Christians and a small number of far-right Jews) became a major force in U.S. politics and began the bad practice of declaring one candidate or another (always a conservative Republican) as “God’s candidate.” That culminated in the presidency of George W. Bush who, although he has apparently not paid much attention to the social teachings of his own United Methodist Church, has invoked his faith and God more than any other president in our history–even claiming that God told him to invade Iraq!!
Some things have changed for the better: No Catholic candidate today has to worry about giving a JFK speech. Among the GOP presidential candidates, New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani is Roman Catholic. In the Democratic field, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) are all Roman Catholics. It has been a non-issue in the campaign. Even when then-Democratic Sen. Joe Liebermann (CT), a devout, practicing Jew, was the VP nominee in 2000, very little was said about his religion–it certainly wasn’t seen as a major hurdle in the campaign.
On the other hand, the faith of presidential candidates has become a major focus in 3 cases: 2 Republican and 1 Democratic. The Democrat is Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), an adult convert to Christianity and a longtime member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. His faith has become an issue because of a major smear campaign by the far right–trying to paint Obama as a “secret Muslim” “trained in a madrassah” (an Islamic religious school) during his childhood in Indonesia. These rumors have been repeatedly shown to be false, but have continued to be repeated on Fox News (“Fixed Noise”) and far right blogs like the infamous Drudge Report. For the record, Obama’s father was a secularized Muslim from Kenya who, by adulthood was agnostic. Obama’s mother, a white woman from Kansas, came from a secular home and religion was given little priority. Her second husband, Obama’s stepfather, was a lukewarm Muslim who was semi-practicing. The school Obama attended in Indonesia was not a Madrassah, but a state-run school with a secular curriculum. Nor should anything be made of Obama’s middle name, “Hussein,” which is common in countries with large Muslim populations since Hussein was the name of a famous Shi’ia holy figure. Obama is Christian–but if he were Muslim that should not be any obstacle to his being president of the U.S. Read article 6 again.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee(R)’s religion is an issue because of two things: He is an ordained Baptist minister who, unlike Pat Robertson, has not resigned his ordination before running for public office; and he makes his conservative evangelical faith a major part of his outreach–raising theocratic fears among some. For instance, Huckabee’s Iowa TV commercials call him a “Christian leader,” which is questionable (he is not a major theologian, nor any kind of influential minister, etc.), but also sounds divisibly sectarian to some. (Imagine what the reaction would be if a Jewish candidate ran an ad saying to vote for him because he was a “Jewish leader.”) Huckabee sounds in many ways like the compassionate conservative that G. W. Bush falsely claimed to be. There is much about him to admire (I reserve to a different post saying what I DON’T like), but he seems to many, including myself, to play fast and loose with church-state separation.
Finally, religion is most central in the campaign of former Mass. Gov. Willard “Mitt” Romney (R), because Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints–a Mormon. Morman’s depart in many ways from historic, mainstream Christianity and many conservative Christians consider them a cult. But those conservative Christians are part of the crowd Romney needs to secure his nomination and even the White House. So, today he tried to give a Mormon version of the JFK speech of 1960. To Romney’s credit, he did not try to discuss theology (even though that’s the problem many evangelicals have with him)–something that is not a matter of public concern. He is running for the U.S. presidency, not chief theologian. He also said many things that seemed to reinforce the U.S. tradition of church-state separation. Unfortunately, he then switched to claiming that “faith is essential for freedom” and that Americans without belief in God are second class citizens who cannot be trusted with public office. When combined with his previous statements that he would refuse to have Muslims in high ranking cabinet posts, this seems to want to shoe-horn Mormonism into “Mainstream American Civil Religion” and then claim that it is “us vs. them,”–the evil Muslims and atheists and agnostics. Mitt, you’re no JFK.
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