Religion in the Public Square-Part 2

In my last post, I mentioned that Mitt Romney’s recent “Faith in America” speech represents a very prominent attempt to discuss the place of religion in the public square. And as such, it serves as an excellent catalyst for further reflection on the issues.

I also promised to highlight one of the sections of the speech that I found somewhat problematic, namely:

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.

This paragraph sparks several thoughts:

To begin with, Romney’s phrasing here is curious. He states, “there are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines.” Taken by itself, that sounds like there is a huge demand by the voters and/or the press for each candidate to become a professional theologian, tasked to educate those interested on the distinguishing beliefs of his or her faith. That would surely be a silly demand.

But of course this isn’t the issue. What people actually want to know is simply whether a given candidate believes in the particular doctrines of his or her professed faith, not whether they can clearly articulate them to others. (As an aside: I’m not sure whether Romney is expressing himself poorly here or trying to confuse the issue. The first possibility would make his comment honest but irrelevant, the second amounts to a frustrating and reprehensible strategy.)

This kind of inquiry, by the way, is completely reasonable. Why? Because what an individual believes affects the way he or she will govern. Consider a rather extreme, but illustrative example. What if a proponent of radical Islam were to run for office in this country, one who was sympathetic to the idea of jihad against those who didn’t share his faith? Would his religious belief be relevant in choosing whether to elect him to office in a nation often targeted by Islamic terrorists? Of course it would. All of us naturally and rightly assume that a person’s beliefs have a significant bearing on his or her actions.

I have little doubt that Romney is very aware of the above point, but it appears that he would still rather avoid talking about his foundational beliefs. I say that because of the next sentence of the quoted paragraph, where he argues that to scrutinize a candidate’s religious beliefs “would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.”

Two observations are in order. First, while Romney seems to be suggesting that it’s out of bounds to examine the doctrines of his faith, in the very same speech he says this:

They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it’s more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

Unless I’m missing something, the argument appears to be this: he will stand by his religious beliefs and will endeavor to live by them—which presumably means he will govern in light of them to some measure—but it remains somehow inappropriate to examine them with respect to judging his qualifications as a candidate. This seems to be a rather glaring inconsistency.

Secondly, Romney’s premise is invalid. While admittedly not a constitutional scholar, I don’t see how anyone can argue subjecting any candidate’s personal religious beliefs to examination by the voters is a violation of the Constitution. Yes, Article VI, section three reads as follows: “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” But the prohibition in question is directed toward the authority of the state, not the judgment of voters.

Therefore, the government is rightly prohibited from barring a candidate from running or serving in an office on the basis of his or her religious beliefs. But for reasons already suggested above, it would be ludicrous to suggest the Constitution is here prohibiting individual voters from weighing a candidate’s religious beliefs in determining how to vote.

Since Romney, like nearly every presidential candidate from both parties, continually attempts to position himself as a friend of religious voters, I’m again willing to bet that he has a firm grasp upon this reality. But one can’t argue that religious belief are basically off limits on the one hand and then position oneself as the right choice for religious voters on the other.

Let me close this post by noting that it is by no means my intention to suggest it would be necessarily wrong for orthodox Christians to vote for Romney, or any other candidate that professes religious beliefs different from their own. I don’t think that would be a thoughtful, biblically informed perspective at all. But I do want to argue strongly that we should not—in fact we cannot—ever suggest candidates’ personal religious beliefs (or non-religious beliefs for that matter) are irrelevant to deciding their fitness for office. The next election in which Americans do that will be the first such contest this nation has ever seen.

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