A religious test all our political candidates should take

By Damon Linker
Sunday, September 19, 2010; B01

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?

This would apply primarily to candidates who belong to churches that make strong claims about the divine authority of their leaders. The Roman Catholic hierarchy, for example, has frequently asserted that the authority of the pope and bishops is binding in matters of faith and morals. As Sen. John F. Kerry learned during his 2004 presidential campaign, members of the hierarchy have begun to demand that Catholic politicians not only refrain from having abortions and encouraging women to procure them, but also work to outlaw the procedure -- even though the Supreme Court has declared it a constitutionally protected right, and even if the candidate's constituents are overwhelmingly pro-choice.

The dilemma faced by devout Mormon candidates is potentially greater. Mormons believe that the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a prophet of God, which seems to give his statements far greater weight than those of any earthly authority, including the president of the United States. In his campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney skirted questions related to his Mormonism by playing down its theological distinctiveness. "The values that I have are the same values you will find in faiths across this country," Romney said in one debate. If he (or another Mormon) runs for the presidency in 2012 or beyond, he should explain how he would respond to a prophetic pronouncement that conflicted with his presidential duties.

What do you believe human beings can know about nature and history?

Many evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals believe in biblical inerrancy, which leads them to treat the findings of natural science (especially those of evolutionary biology) with suspicion. Many of these Christians also believe that God regularly intervenes in history, directing global events, guiding U.S. actions in the world for the sake of divine ends and perhaps even leading humanity toward an apocalyptic conflagration in the Middle East. Potential candidates who belong to churches associated with such thinking, such as the Pentecostal Sarah Palin, owe it to their fellow citizens to elaborate on their views of modern science and the U.S. role in the unfolding of the end times. Given the ominous implications of a person with strong eschatological convictions becoming the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, it would be profoundly irresponsible not to ask tough questions about the topic.

Do you believe the law should be used to impose and enforce religious views of sexual morality?

America's traditional religious consensus on sexual morality -- which supported laws against abortion and all forms of non-procreative sex, from masturbation to oral and anal sex, whether practiced by members of the same or different genders, inside or outside of marriage -- began to break down in the 1960s. The nation today is sharply divided between those whose views of sex are still grounded in the norms and customs of traditionalist religion and those who no longer feel bound by those norms and customs. Given this lack of consensus, the law has understandably retreated from enforcing religiously grounded views, leaving it up to individuals to decide how to regulate their sexual conduct.

The religious right hopes to reverse this retreat. That opens the troubling prospect of the state seeking to impose the sexual morals of some Americans on the nation as a whole. All candidates -- especially those who court the support of the religious right -- need to clarify where they stand on the issue. Above all, they need to indicate whether they believe it is possible or desirable to use the force of law to uphold a sexual morality affirmed by a fraction of the people.

Asking candidates about their faith should not be taken as a sign of anti-religious animus. On the contrary, this sort of questioning takes faith seriously -- certainly more seriously than most of our politicians and news media currently do. Candidates think they benefit from making a show of their faith, and journalists, aiming to avoid uncomfortable confrontations, usually allow them to leave their pronouncements at the level of platitudes. We need to go further.

Pastor Rick Warren's conversation with John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign was a move in the right direction, though Warren was such an anodyne interviewer that the candidates were permitted to speak mainly in bromides. Better, perhaps, would be a special presidential debate devoted to faith and morality, in which journalists and religious leaders would pose pointed questions about candidates' beliefs.

It matters quite a lot if, in the end, a politician's faith is merely an ecumenical expression of American civil religion -- or if, when taking the religious test, he forthrightly declares (as Kennedy did) that in the event of a clash between his spiritual and political allegiances, the Constitution would always come first. Those are the easy cases. In others -- when a politician denies the need to choose or explain, insisting simply that it's possible to marry his or her religious beliefs with democratic rule in a pluralistic society -- we need to dig deeper, to determine as best we can how the candidate is likely to think and act when the divergent demands of those two realms collide, as they inevitably will.

Obama's 2008 speech on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his own Christian faith and its complicated intersection with the wrenching story of race in America stands as a particularly eloquent example of how to take -- and pass -- the religious test. Obama resisted giving the speech, but many Americans learned something important about the man and his mind as they listened to him talk through some of life's deepest moral, political and spiritual questions. A political process that compelled candidates to engage regularly in such thinking about the tensions and links between faith and governance just might foster increased religious understanding -- which, these days, feels in short supply.


Damon Linker, a contributing editor at the New Republic and a senior writing fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of "The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders."

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