The Politics of Mixing Religion in One's Candidacy

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No religious test, but always test religion.

All the hullabaloo about Mitt Romney, the Mormon, and Mike Huckabee, “The Christian Leader,” is getting tiresome. Tiresome, but not unimportant, as some would have us believe.

Marching in perfect unison, most leading Conservative pundits can’t stop pointing to Article VI of the Constitution — “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” — but in Iowa and across America voters don’t seem to be buying their logic that in the task of picking a president theology shouldn’t matter.

Most red-blooded, inside the Beltway analysts don’t get the Iowa phenomenon. They see Middle America’s fixation on parsing words about God and church as unsophisticated bigotry.

They continue to wonder why, for so many, theology figures so much into the selection of a president. They are used to looking to wishy-washy or non-practicing Catholic senators (and former president) as an indicator of how religious belief influences (doesn’t influence) political decision-making in the non-WASP category. “If John Kerry and Ted Kennedy are Catholic, and if they vote as if they weren’t, why should we be worried about strange theology?"

Most of America uses a different indicator. Evangelicals and fervent Catholics look at their own understanding and experience of God and church — and what faith in both asks of them on a daily basis — as proof that no true believer would separate his faith from his job. And if you happen to work in the Oval Office, faith would matter more, not less, they would assume.

True believers instinctively know some aspects of religious belief inform a candidate’s values and a candidate’s values (in a representative democracy like the U.S.) inform, to one or another degree, her policy choices.

But when, to an outsider, it looks like a religion or denomination teaches doctrine or values that will influence the carrying out of the job of president (whether true or not), it is not bigoted or anti-American to ask the candidate to explain further. What will we say, for example, when down the road a viable candidate for the president of the United States is a true believer in Islam? Will it be unfair and bigoted to ask him whether he shares Usama bin Laden’s interpretation of the Quran? Will conservative pundits continue to point to Article VI?

On their own admission, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are true believers. Arguably, they are more closely tied to particular denominations than any other candidate in the nation’s recent history. Is it unfair, then, for a Jewish voter to ask fmr. Gov. Huckabee the meaning of his public call to “take back this country for Christ?” Is it unfair for an Evangelical to ask fmr. Gov. Romney what the Mormon church means when it teaches that “the president of the Church today is a living prophet” and that “you must prepare yourself so that when the prophets and apostles speak, the Holy Ghost can confirm the truths they teach and you can then determine to follow the counsel they give you?" ( Would it be unfair for a Mormon to ask a candidate who claims to follow all of the Catholic Church’s teaching what he would do if the Pope were to call him up and ask him not to go to war with Iran? (Unfortunately, there is no such Catholic candidate in this race.)

None of these questions are unfair.

A political candidate does not need to be a theologian. He does not need to be the spokesperson for his church. He does not need to defend the legitimacy of his religious tradition.

But when, to an outsider, it looks like a religion or denomination teaches doctrine or values that will influence the carrying out of the job of president, it is not bigoted or anti-American to ask the candidate to explain further.

There shall be no religious test, but we should always test religion.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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