A religious test all our political candidates should take

By Damon Linker
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fifty years ago, in the midst of his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, Sen. John F. Kennedy gave a speech to ease voters' concerns about his Catholic faith. Speaking in Houston, Kennedy emphasized that Article VI of the Constitution maintains that no "religious test" may keep a candidate from aspiring to political office. He went further, implying that his Catholicism should be off limits to public scrutiny. To treat a politician's religious beliefs as politically relevant was an affront to America's noblest civic traditions, he declared.

The speech was a huge success -- and not only because it helped Kennedy win. Its most enduring legacy was to persuade journalists, critics and citizens at large not to question the political implications of candidates' religious beliefs. While it was still acceptable to assess the dangers of generic "religion" in public life, evaluating particular faiths came to be viewed as bigotry.

No longer. Since the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s, traditionalist believers have actively injected faith into the political realm, pushing public figures to place their religious convictions at the core of their civic identities and political campaigns. From Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, U.S. presidents have made overt -- and largely innocuous -- gestures toward satisfying this expectation.

Today, President Obama's religious beliefs are at the forefront of public debate. While Fox News personality Glenn Beck decries Obama's alleged left-leaning Christianity as "liberation theology," nearly a fifth of the country believes, mistakenly, that the president is a Muslim. It is tempting to stick with the old Kennedy argument and respond that the president's faith is irrelevant as well as off limits. But it is neither.

The battles over an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan and a Florida pastor's threat to burn the Koran on Sept. 11 underscore the relevance of political leaders' views on faith -- their own as well as others'. Instead of attempting the impossible task of abolishing faith from the political conversation, we need a new kind of religious test for our leaders. Unlike the tests proscribed by the Constitution, this one would not threaten to formally bar members of specific traditions from public office. But religious convictions do not always harmonize with the practice of democratic government, and allowing voters to explore the dissonance is legitimate.

Every religion is radically particular, with its own distinctive beliefs about God, human history and the world. These are specific, concrete claims -- about the status of the religious community in relation to other groups and to the nation as a whole, about the character of political and divine authority, about the place of prophecy in religious and political life, about the scope of human knowledge, about the providential role of God in human history, and about the moral and legal status of sex. Depending on where believers come down on such issues, their faith may or may not clash with the requirements of democratic politics. To help us make that determination, all candidates for high office should have to take the religious test, which would include the following questions:

How might the doctrines and practices of your religion conflict with the fulfillment of your official duties?

This question would be especially pertinent for evangelical Protestant candidates -- such as Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister -- who belong to faith traditions that emphasize transforming the world in the image of their beliefs. The Southern Baptist confession of faith asserts, for instance, that "all Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme . . . in human society." What would this mean for a Southern Baptist seeking to lead a nation that includes many millions of non-Christians?

Muslim candidates, meanwhile, should be asked to discuss their view of the proper place of sharia law in a religiously pluralistic society. Jewish candidates, too, should be questioned about their faith, as Sen. Joe Lieberman was during his 2000 campaign for the vice presidency, when he was asked to explain how he would negotiate the inevitable tension between the laws of religious observance (including the Sabbath) and serving the nation at its highest level.

How would you respond if your church issued an edict that clashed with the duties of your office?

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