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Opinion Why the presidential candidates need to answer tough questions about God

It’s almost surprising that with a party so reliant on evangelical voters, and which has so many candidates running for president, it took so long for them to get around to arguing about who’s the most religious.

First it was Ben Carson. When asked the biggest difference between him and Donald Trump, Carson said: “I’ve realized where my success has come from and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God.” Trump then hit back, saying Carson is “not a great religious figure” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and adding, “You look at Carson’s faith, you look at his views on abortion, and I think that’s why I’m leading with Evangelicals.”

Bobby Jindal, desperate to get some attention, chimed in that Trump’s claims of affection for the Bible are “all just a show, and he hasn’t ever read the Bible. But you know why he hasn’t read the Bible? Because he’s not in it.”

Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are jockeying to see who can hug Kentucky county clerk and marriage martyr Kim Davis closest, and at least six of the seventeen candidates (Carson, Huckabee, Jindal, Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker) have put courting evangelical voters at the center of their strategy. When the candidates meet in their next debate on Wednesday, you can bet this topic is going to come up.

Since I’m a liberal Jewish atheist who advocates a strict separation between church and state, you might think I’d be distressed at all this and want to keep discussion of religion out of the campaign. Quite the contrary — I think we need to talk more about the candidates’ religious beliefs. The problem isn’t that we pay too much attention to religion in politics, the problem is that we talk about it in ways that are absurdly shallow.

The United States has far and away the highest levels of religiosity of any industrialized democracy, and all presidential candidates are expected, at least at some point, to be photographed going to church and testify to their deep and abiding faith in God. As long as that’s the case, we have not just a right but an obligation to ask them specific questions about what they believe and how it would affect their actions in office. They can’t say that their religion lies at the heart of everything they are and everything they think about the world, then turn around and say it’s out of bounds for us to ask them about the specifics of their faith and how it might influence their day-to-day decision making.

But journalists are extremely squeamish about getting into those details, no doubt because they’re worried that it will come off sounding like criticism of the candidates’ beliefs instead of a worthwhile exploration of them. The closest we usually get to a real discussion is a dumb question like “What’s your favorite Bible verse?”, which never yields anything interesting or informative because it’s easy for candidates to bat away with an old favorite like “Do unto others.” We spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to get inside the heads of those who would be president, but when the topic of religion comes up, we take a tentative step forward, then rush back lest we give offense.

For instance, when Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008 and again in 2012, there was speculation at the outset that his Mormon faith would be a big campaign issue, and concern that too much discussion of it might bleed over into anti-Mormon bigotry. But it never happened. Romney gave one major speech in 2007 in which he essentially argued that it doesn’t matter what you believe in so long as you believe there’s a god (“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom”), and that seemed to satisfy everyone. He didn’t get too many questions about the topic afterward, and no one was impolite enough to question him about Mormonism’s more colorful details.

You might argue that his beliefs would have had little effect on his presidency, because he’d act in roughly the same way as any other Republican. That might or might not have been true, but either way, it would have been easier to make that judgment if we had known more about those beliefs. And there are certainly other candidates whose beliefs would seem necessary to explore if they became serious contenders. Rick Santorum, for instance, literally believes that Satan is waging war on America (“This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country — the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age?”). If Santorum were president, that would have to have a profound effect on the kind of decisions he would make.

Many of the candidates are members of evangelical denominations, including Huckabee, Walker, Cruz and Carson. How would the spiritual demand of evangelizing figure into their work as president? Would they feel an obligation to try to convert Americans to their beliefs? What about the people from other countries with whom they would interact? Do they believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as their faiths dictate, and how would that affect their stands on things like funding for scientific research?

This goes for Democrats, too, especially Hillary Clinton, who has professed to strong faith. She is likely to talk about that faith during the coming campaign; can she tell us about instances where her faith led her to a different policy decision than she might otherwise have made? If Clinton is going to tell us she’s a believer, how has that impacted her thinking in ways that might be relevant to the presidency?

These questions (and a hundred others we could come up with) don’t have to be asked in a pop-quiz, “gotcha” manner. I don’t care whether Scott Walker can name all twelve apostles on demand, but I do care whether he thinks that Christian elected officials have a right to refuse to abide by the law if they think it conflicts with their theological beliefs. With religious conservatives engaged in an aggressive campaign to secure special religious privileges in realms like commerce and politics, it matters greatly what the candidates think God wants them to do. But we won’t know unless we ask.