The Religious Test for Public Office in 21st Century America

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When Robert Jeffress, D.Min., Senior Pastor of the First Baptist church of Dallas, TX, announced his support for Rick Perry, a good Christian, rather than for Mitt Romney, not a Christian, and underlined his choice by pronouncing Mormonism a cult, media pundits reacted as though he’d loudly farted in their various churches.  Their startled responses suggested that they were unaware of the critical importance of the electorate’s gradations of supernatural belief.

Most of them objected to the label “cult” – a meaty word that sounds to me like what it references – and some of them tried, usually clumsily, to finesse Jeffress into agreeing that Romney really is a Christian.  But Jeffress, who from the beginning characterized Romney as “a good, moral man,” would not budge:  Mormonism is a cult and Romney is not a Christian.  A few pundits trotted out the Constitution’s prohibition of religious tests for public office and Jeffress brushed those aside, almost without breaking his default smile.  Although government is constitutionally prohibited from religious testing, he noted correctly, individuals can certainly have their own biases, and he believes that evangelical Christians should be biased toward voting for other evangelical Christians.

But no pundit – surprise, surprise – sought to widen that perspective just a smidge to ask why, if it is a good idea to prohibit religious bias by government, it would also be a good idea to foster such bias by individuals.  What is it that makes a religious test a bad thing for the country at the institutional level but a good thing at the individual level, particularly since We The People are the government?  What part of, say, Perry’s specific supernatural beliefs, whatever they are, would make him a more effective leader of this entire nation than Romney’s specific supernatural beliefs would make him?  Or, silly me, isn’t the idea here to elect the most effective leader?  Well, of course it isn’t.  The idea is to elect the gal or guy whose supernatural beliefs are most like mine on the assumption that she or he will govern according to those beliefs and thus in ways that feel comfortable to me.  While believers tend to couch the sum of their beliefs in terms of “the good of the nation,” their unexpressed, and probably unrecognized, presumption is that what feels good to them is good for the nation.

And this suggests the most important reasons for the Constitution’s attempts to keep religion out of government:  conflict of interest, divided loyalty, role confusion.  Presidents take an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” (Art. II, Sec. I.), the supreme behavioral authority of the nation.  But at the conclusion of Chris Matthews’ attempts on “Hardball” to confront Jeffress with the constitutional separation of church and state, Jeffress, almost offhandedly, noted that he consulted a higher authority than the Constitution.  That’s right, the Bible.

Matthews (a Catholic) ignored this, but it wasn’t mere rhetorical flourish by Jeffress.  A visit to his church’s website [1] confirms that his expression of supreme authority is orthodoxy.  The first of the church’s stated “Core Values” is “Authority of Scripture” and it begins:  “We believe that all Scripture is divinely inspired and serves as the final authority in all matters of belief and behavior (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).”

So if the Constitution arguably permits a particular behavior, but the Bible – as interpreted by . . . whom?  Jeffress? – prohibits it, what’s a President Perry to do?  Does he go with the Constitution as his oath requires, an imperfect, human attempt to order human behavior, and one whose importance on the cosmic scale will fade away “in the wink of a young girl’s eye”? [2]  Or does he go with the orders of the Creator of the Universe (or a reasonable facsimile thereof)?

If he actually accepts the Jeffress version of reality, wouldn’t he go with the Bible choice?  Wouldn’t you?  And even if, after a long period of reflection and mental struggle (I know: not a readily imaginable scenario), President Perry, this time, is able to reconcile the temporal and divine authorities and follow the Constitution, is this what we hire a President for?  Won’t he face more than enough real human problems without adding theological ones?

Catholic Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy, a little more than 51 years ago, felt compelled to assure the Southern Baptists that as President his loyalty would not be divided, that he would have no conflict of interest, that the Pope would not tell him what to do.  Tellingly, his argument was based on firm beliefs, beliefs that the Jeffress Southern Baptists now disavow:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials — and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

… Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end — where all men and all churches are treated as equal — where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice. [3]

How pure and reasonable, how . . . American these words sound today.  And how alien to the current political climate.  Imagine any top GOP candidate publicly stating such beliefs.  She or he would immediately envy Rick Santorum’s poll numbers.  This speech and JFK’s subsequent election show us how far our culture has moved toward religious testing for presidential fitness:  that oily little man Robert Jeffress captures national media attention for days and days specifically on the details of such a test; neither Romney’s nor President Obama’s statements of Christian identity are sufficient; you’re not a Christian if you say you’re a Christian, you’re a Christian if I say you’re a Christian.  By any definition of the term, that’s a test.

The deeper harm (and the charm, from the religionists’ perspective) of this test is that it accords substance to the insubstantial:  belief.  No one – not Jeffress, not you, not me – knows what, if any, supernatural beliefs buzz and tingle in Perry’s brain.  Or in Romney’s.  Or in Obama’s.  They may not even know.  To the extent that our beliefs in the supernatural are conscious, they are perfectly private.  Even to the extent that they are expressible, they are expressed only as, and only in the terms that, we choose.  No one can calibrate the relation between the expression and the felt belief.  As Bush the Younger so embarrassingly demonstrated with Vladimir Putin, you cannot look into a man’s eyes and see his soul.

So, in addition to being directly contrary to the wisdom of the Constitution, our religious testing for public office is a fool’s errand.  It cannot reveal any truth about a candidate’s supernatural beliefs.  At best, it can only reveal how badly someone wants to be elected, how willing to subordinate the actual contents of his or her mind to the perceived wishes of some electorate.  If the level of White-House hunger is of interest in assessing a candidate’s fitness, the long campaign trail provides plenty of such public indications.

What to do then about this religious testing?  Do we simply try to ignore it as a harmless distraction?  But surely we agree that the times we live in are serious enough to require substantial creative problem-solving.  Surely we agree that all of our fates ride now with the captain of this ship of state.  And surely we agree that the differences between Perry’s talking-snake-in-the-garden and Romney’s magic underwear can have no functional relevance in assessing the likely competence of these two would-be captains.  So isn’t it directly harmful to squander our time with these religious distractions?

Unfortunately, our wider culture is now too besotted with religiosity to engender any grassroots effort to render a candidate’s religious advertising inappropriate or at least impolite.  Our hope can only lie in our media surrogates, those dwindling elements of journalism that are not yet mere tribal megaphones.  At every opportunity, candidates must face the question:

You say you’re a Christian and that Jesus Christ is your personal savior. [For example.]  How does that quality make you more fit for the office of President than someone who is not a Christian or for whom Jesus is not a personal savior or who is not a theist at all?

If the candidate claims some fitness advantage, then the fact door is open and the interviewer can reasonably trot out material elements of indisputable data: that more religious people do not behave more morally than less or non-religious people and that they are certainly not more intelligent. [4]  If the candidate, wisely and politically, denies such advantage, then any results of religious testing are exposed as no more relevant in the election process than hair color and should be similarly excised from the political conversation.  Brunettes may, in fact, be disposed to vote for brunettes, but nobody tells them that they should and no candidate begs votes on that basis.

Fat chance, you say.  Well, maybe, but something has to be done to move us away from religious testing.  The world may not be more dangerous than it was in JFK’s time, but it is certainly way more complicated.  We need, truly need, presidents who are adept problem-solvers.  Some of the pending problems are genuinely critical.  We can no longer afford the luxury of another genial boob who just happens to have passed the religion test.

ARC – 10/15/2011



[2] “Glory Days”, Bruce Springsteen


[4]  If, worst-case scenario, the candidate claims a direct line to Jesus, who can be brought in as a part of the team through prayer when a difficult problem looms, as does the governor of my state, Arizona, then at least the electorate can see what’s on offer and can collectively decide how far to actually risk their individual health and welfare on those supernatural beliefs.

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One Response to The Religious Test for Public Office in 21st Century America

  1. Pingback: Of Blame | The Graves of the Roses

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