When We Choose A President, Should Religion Matter?

Charles C. Haynes

Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Like it or not, religion matters in presidential politics. But rarely in our history has it mattered so much as it does in the 2008 campaign.

Officially, of course, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” — as set forth in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Unofficially, however, voters are free to administer their own religious tests — and that’s exactly what many are doing in this election.

Mitt Romney tried to avoid “the speech” — but he was finally compelled to address the Mormon question earlier this year. Although generally well-received by many conservatives, Romney’s speech didn’t appear to budge the significant portion of the electorate who tell pollsters they won’t vote for a Mormon. How much this hurt him in the primaries is debatable, but it clearly didn’t help.

Last week, it was Barack Obama’s turn in the religion hot seat after sound bites from sermons of his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, began circulating in the media. It remains to be seen whether or not Obama succeeds in his attempt to confront the volatile topics of race and religion in our society — while at the same time distancing himself from Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric about the failures of the American system.

Of course, Romney and Obama aren’t the only candidates to face a religion test. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, benefited from the evangelical vote in some states, but clearly suffered from being pigeonholed as the “evangelical candidate” in others.

And John McCain has had to distance himself from the anti-Catholic views of Texas televangelist John Hagee after initially embracing Hagee’s endorsement. McCain has also come under fire for his association with the Rev. Rod Parsley, an influential megachurch pastor who calls for a Christian war to destroy the “false religion” of Islam.

None of these religious controversies, however, are as bizarre or disturbing as the Internet-fueled lie that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. It’s appalling enough that so many people apparently consider it a disqualifying slur to call a candidate a Muslim. But add to the mix the vicious charge that Obama is a Manchurian Muslim candidate — even the Antichrist — and what emerges is a very ugly picture of what religious bigotry looks like when it spins out of control.

Personally, I don’t like religious tests — official or otherwise — because religious affiliation should not determine a person’s qualifications for public office. But having said that, I do think the public has every right to inquire about the religious or philosophical views of candidates in a presidential race. After all, voters want to know the sources of values and convictions that would shape a president’s decisions.

The challenge — especially for the news media — is to get beyond stereotypes about Mormons, evangelicals, Muslims or African-American preachers and provide the context for a fair, informed understanding of the role of faith in a candidate’s life.

Consider the current flap over Jeremiah Wright. Will the debate get stuck in the loop of those incendiary sound bites played endlessly on YouTube? Or will the media and the voters have the patience to put Wright’s sermons — and his church — in context by learning some of the history and experience behind the words? (NPR gets high marks for attempting to do this as soon as the story broke.)

Without some knowledge of the role of the black church in the political and social history of African-Americans, without some exposure to black liberation theology, and without some understanding of how African-Americans often view racism in America, it is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out the meaning of the controversy swirling around Obama’s relationship to Rev. Wright.

Understanding doesn’t necessarily translate into support. However well informed, voters may still reject Obama — or any other candidate — and religious affiliation may well be one factor. But at least the “religious test” should be an essay question and not a fill-in-the-blank exercise.

Unofficial religious tests are unlikely to disappear from the political arena. But let’s hope that such tests don’t determine the outcome of the presidential race. The real test should not be religious affiliation, but rather the character and judgment necessary to lead at this difficult time in our history.

Abraham Lincoln, after all, belonged to no church. But his moral compass served the nation well.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected]