Hearing Mitt Romney’s surrogate Bill Bennett refer to me as a bigot and Jon Huntsman call me a “moron” last week after my controversial comments on Mormonism, amid calls for civility and tolerance in public discourse, reminds me of the exclamation: “We will not tolerate intolerance!” But beyond the personal insults, I am concerned that these men are attempting to prematurely marginalize religion as a relevant topic in elections.
Utilizing such incendiary rhetoric against those of us who dare bring up a candidate’s spiritual beliefs cuts off discussion about religion before it begins. However, polls continue to reveal that a large segment of the population does care about a candidate’s faith. Voters who embrace any faith — or no faith — should consider the following:
First, discussion of a candidate’s faith is permissible. Over the past several days, talk show hosts have lectured me about Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits religious tests for public office, as if considering a candidate’s faith is somehow unconstitutional, un-American or even illegal. How ludicrous. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to eliminate through intimidation religion as a suitable criterion by which to choose a candidate. The Constitution is referring to religious litmus tests imposed by government, not by individuals.
Interestingly, John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and co-author of the Federalist Papers, thought a candidate’s religious beliefs should be a primary consideration in voting. Jay wrote, “It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” According to Jay, preferring a Christian candidate is neither bigoted nor unconstitutional.
Second, discussion of a candidate’s faith is relevant. During a time of rising unemployment, falling home prices and massive deficits, it is easy to relegate religion as an irrelevant topic. Yet our religious beliefs define the very essence of who we are. Any candidate who claims his religion has no influence on his decisions is either a dishonest politician or a shallow follower of his faith.
Those on the left and right have been disingenuous in suddenly claiming a candidate’s faith is off limits. Just a few months ago, David Gregory of “Meet the Press” asked candidate Michele Bachmann how her religious belief about submission to her husband would affect her performance if she were president. That was a fair question: If she had to choose between obeying her husband or obeying the Constitution, what would she do?
Conservatives spent most of the 2008 election calling for an investigation of Barack Obama’s religious beliefs in relationship to his membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church. Did he embrace the views of his pastor? Again, a fair question because no religion I’m familiar with allows for a separation of faith from behavior. The question is not whether personal spiritual beliefs shape a politician’s values and policies, but what spiritual beliefs mold those values and policies.
Finally, discussion of a candidate’s faith is multifaceted. I believe I have been misquoted repeatedly as telling the GOP not to vote for Romney. I have never made such a statement; I realize I might very well end up voting for Romney if he is the Republican nominee. While I prefer a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian, religion is not the only consideration in choosing a candidate. Frankly, Christians have not always made good presidents. We must also consider whether a candidate is competent to lead and govern according to biblical principles.
During this firestorm I’ve reignited over the role of religion in politics, some have quoted Martin Luther as saying he would rather be governed by a competent unbeliever than an incompetent Christian. Yet evangelicals should remember that the purpose of the primary process is to keep us from having to make such a choice. At this point we have the opportunity to select both a competent leader and a committed Christian.
I predict secularists are going to be continually frustrated over the next 13 months as religion continues to be a part of the national political debate. America is filled with religious people, and to religious people, religion matters.
Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, is the author of the forthcoming book “Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days.” His e-mail is pastor@FirstDallas.org.