A Religious Test for Candidates?

September 19th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Damon Linker, author of The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, has a thought-provoking column in today’s Washington Post.  As most people know, a religious test for political office is explicitly unconstitutional (Article VI, paragraph 3).  Nevertheless, Linker maintains that all candidates for high political office should take a religious test.

He cites John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston speech in 1960 addressing head-on the question of what influence, if any, his Catholic beliefs would have on his performance as president.  He also notes the 2008 “conversation” on religion among Pastor Rick Warren, Barack Obama, and John McCain.  In Kennedy’s case, the speech probably made the difference between winning and losing the election.  In the latter example, it was so watered-down that it did little to expose the depth of belief of either candidate.

We’ve become more and more attuned to the religious beliefs of candidates, especially candidates for president.  Since Jimmy Carter certainly, presidential candidates have been very forthcoming about their religions, not because they were required to but because they felt obliged to by both the tenets of their faith and political reality.

So why should we want to know (and we do want to know) about a candidates religious beliefs?  There are two good reasons.  First, religion has a significant influence on the thinking and actions of every believer in every aspect of his or her life.  Second, we (the voters) should know what a candidate believes in order to be able to judge his or her fitness for office.

It’s not enough just to know that a candidate is a Christian.  Does he or she believe in the literal truth of the Bible, therefore rejecting all scientific evidence underlying evolution, opposing abortion in all cases at any stage of pregnancy, opposing rational scientific research of certain kinds, accepting the predictions of Revelations, and eagerly awaiting the second coming of the Messiah and the Rapture?  If Catholic, does he or she accept that the Pope is infallible on questions of doctrine, thereby being obligated, for example, to not only oppose abortion but to work toward prohibiting it for everyone?  Going further, does the candidate hear voices, see visions, speak in tongues, or dance with snakes?

Moreover, if a candidate is a Mormon, he or she believes that the president of the church is a prophet with whom God communicates directly.  One useful question:  The prophet revealed in 1978 that blacks are equal human beings in the Church’s terms.  What if that revelation is reversed (again) and the prophet hears from God that blacks are no longer equal?  What would the candidate do if he or she were president?

If the candidate is an observant Jew, does he or she believe that it’s obligatory to observe the Sabbath, to include not working and not using certain modern conveniences on that day?  What if a hostile power launches nuclear weapons at the U.S. on a Saturday — would opening the codes and giving the order for retaliation and defensive measures be defined as work, which is prohibited on the Sabbath?

And what if the candidate is a Muslim?  Questions abound.  What are his or her beliefs about sharia law, dawah, the rights of women, and other tenets of the faith that are in direct conflict with the modern world?  Does he or she believe Israel should be destroyed by direct action, or should we let it happen by withdrawing all aid and support?

These are all valid questions, given the specifics of some religious beliefs and the supposed obligations of all those who claim to be religious.  Linker proposes a test that would have four questions:

  • How might the doctrines and practices of your religion conflict with the fulfillment of your official duties?
  • How would you respond if your church issued an edict that clashed with the duties of your office?
  • What do you believe human beings can know about nature and history?
  • Do you believe the law should be used to impose and enforce religious views of sexual morality?

Good questions all, and I’d like to know a candidate’s answers to them, particularly if he or she aspires to be president.  While we can’t impose a test for office because it would be unconstitutional, we can ask the questions.  Perhaps, as Linker suggests, we could apply enough pressure for presidential candidates to agree to one debate just on religion.

And one other useful thing we could learn through an informal test like this or even through a debate on religion — is the candidate an opportunistic hypocrite?  Take for example John Kerry, who claimed to be a Catholic and to believe that life begins at conception, while at the same time declaring himself to be firmly pro-choice.  That marked him as either a hypocrite or a doofus — or in his case, both.

I would like to see a presidential candidate stand up and say, “Look, I’ve studied religion extensively, and I’ve come to the same conclusion as Albert Einstein, who said, ‘…in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.’  That’s good enough for me.”

That would be good enough for me, too.  But, of course, in America the candidate could never be elected president or even dog catcher.  Seems there’s an informal test for office that requires a belief in spirits, visions, miracles, and magic.


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13 Responses to “A Religious Test for Candidates?”



  1. Dan Miller |

    I agree that a candidate’s religion is important to the extent that it is predictive of what he would do if elected, and it often is. Although I suspect that many candidates profess to adhere to religions which strongly and dogmatically profess certain beliefs and then ignore those beliefs for political purposes, that too is quite telling, as I argued here more than two years ago.

    I also agree that more is needed than for a candidate to use a label which has become essentially meaningless. Bertrand Russell once (or maybe more often) noted that those of us in western countries are “christian” in a geographical sense. I seem to recall that he also said that is silly.

    What is a “Christian?” Is it someone who can recite, credibly, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed? They are, I seem to recall from the distant past, recited every Sunday in many mainstream Christian churches with minor variations. The Apostles’ Creed, from the Book of Common Prayer, is as follows:

    I believe in God the Father Almighty,
    Maker of heaven and earth:
    And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
    Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
    Born of the Virgin Mary,
    Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    Was crucified, dead, and buried:
    He descended into hell;
    The third day he rose again from the dead;
    He ascended into heaven,
    And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
    From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
    I believe in the Holy Ghost;
    The holy Catholick Church;
    The Communion of Saints;
    The Forgiveness of sins;
    The Resurrection of the body,
    And the Life everlasting.
    Amen.

    Not much there about what Jesus may have said or done or what his followers should do, but so be it. Does it define Christianity, or is it a relic of the distant past to be mumbled because it is customary? Is the term “Christian” simply to mean someone who thinks nice thoughts about his fellow man and occasionally acts on those thoughts? Is a Unitarian a “Christian?” How about a Jew? Silly questions and I think the answer is “no,” but not quite so silly in view of the way the word is often used.

    The word has come to have very little meaning and yet it is used quite frequently. I vividly recall a self professed “Christian” financial advisor who made lots of money fleecing his flock; he got a lot of mileage out of the label “Christian,” even after it had become obvious that he had fleeced them. I represented a bunch of his victims in a lengthy FCC proceeding years ago. Unfortunately, the same ploy seems to be used by many in the political class.

    If a candidate is to seek office based on his religious views, he really should say what they are, particularly as they relate to contentious issues on which he campaigns, rather than seek refuge in an amorphous definitional box.

    I probably would not vote for or against a Christian, Jew or Muslim per se, but I sure would like to know what he means by the word and what impact it might have on his behavior in office.


  2. Dan Miller |

    Here is an interesting “Who said what” test. No cheating!


  3. Tom Carter |

    If one is Catholic or a follower of some Protestant denominations, then the Apostle’s Creed will be very familiar. However, it’s almost impossible to be a Christian and not accept the Nicene Creed. That’s a problem for Mormons, who don’t subscribe to the Nicene Creed but still claim to be Christian (there are other problems in that regard, too).

    Far as I’m concerned, I don’t argue with people who claim to be of a particular religion. That’s their private business — unless it isn’t. That’s where politicians, particularly presidents, come on stage. Then it becomes the public’s business. Not as a test for office, which I wouldn’t want even if there weren’t a constitutional problem, but as questions to be asked and answered. If, for example, a candidate for president were in the habit of dancing around with poisonous snakes, as a very small number of Christians do, I certainly would want to know about it.


  4. Tom Carter |

    Interesting little quiz, Dan. Not too hard once you figure out what’s going on. It makes a valid point, though.


  5. Dan Miller |

    If, for example, a candidate for president were in the habit of dancing around with poisonous snakes, as a very small number of Christians do, I certainly would want to know about it.

    Well, yeah. It might be good preparation for dealing with the Congress.


  6. Lisa |

    Then there is the current president who claimed during the campaign to be a Christian but chooses to host a Ramadan dinner at the White House over hosting the National Prayer Breakfast. As I’ve said before “actions speak louder than words” and then the White House wonders why one in five people believe the president is a Muslim. And that poll was taken BEFORE the Ramadan dinner and the president’s comments about the ground zero mosque.


  7. Tom Carter |

    The real truth about Obama’s religious beliefs, as I’ve said before, is almost certainly that he isn’t religious. (That improves my estimation of his intellect.)

    He sat in the loony Rev Wright’s church for 20 years because that’s what ambitious young community organizers do — if you aren’t a psalm-singing church-goer in that world, you don’t have any chance of connecting and working with the “community.” He made it clear during his campaigns that he was a Christian, and he was particularly careful to do that given his diverse background. And, after all, what do we expect him to do? If you don’t at least credibly claim to be a Christian, your chances of being elected senator or president (or dog catcher) are exactly nil.

    And why do about 20 percent of people believe he’s a Muslim? The word “stupid” comes to mind, followed closely by the word “ignorant.”


  8. Dan Miller |

    And why do about 20 percent of people believe he’s a Muslim?

    I suspect that in many cases it’s just a form of cussing, which we generally do when we can’t think of more emphatic words. When someone is called a M*F*****, it does not really suggest that he has incestuous relations with his mother. On the other hand, it doesn’t really mean that he does not.


  9. Brianna |

    There shouldn’t be a government test, but like all other beliefs, the religious beliefs of a candidate are fair game to public scrutiny, and discrimination.

    As to why 20% believe he’s a Muslim, it probably has something to do with his ambiguous background, some of the references he’s made in some of his speeches, his apparently diehard belief in the liberal version of “tolerance,” and the fact that he lived in Muslim countries as a child and is of Muslim descent. Nobody cares what Obama says anymore. They’re looking at what he does, and he’s done some things which are awfully ambiguous.

    As for whether I personally think Obama is a Muslim, I honestly don’t think it matters. What matters is what he says and what he does, and if he were an actual Muslim I don’t think he could have said or done more to bend over backwards for the ummah than he already has.


  10. Tom Carter |

    Good point, Brianna. He’s brought this on himself, really, when you look at a lot of things he’s done in the past — first interview goes to al Jazeera, the Cairo speech, Muslim observance in the White House but no National Prayer Day, extremely negative attitude toward Israel, apologies for Muslims, negative attitude toward our European allies, and so on.

    I know this won’t ever happen, but it would really be nice if we could just get away from religion in the political world. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had no idea what the president’s religion is, or whether he is even a believer, and didn’t care one way or the other?


  11. Dan Miller |

    I rather enjoyed this article. It’s about (gasp) witches, entitled “Come Together: A Plea to Annoy Christians and Witches Alike!”


  12. Tom Carter |

    Interesting article, Dan. I confess that I don’t know a heck of a lot about Wicca, although I once knew a woman who professed to be one. All I’ll say about her is that she was really, really weird….


  13. Dan Miller |

    Great Zeus! Now the Wiccans are after Ms. O’Donnell.

    “Any political candidate that is going to equate witchcraft with Satanism is ill informed and is not likely to get the support of people involved in nature religion,” Reverend Selena Fox, the High Priestess & Senior Minister of the Circle Sanctuary, told the Huffington Post. Her non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting paganism and nature spirituality.

    That will show her! May Thor have mercy on her sole soul.


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