Faith and presidential politics

An op-ed column in this morning's Washington Post caught my eye. It was titled "Why a Candidate's Faith Matters," and the author is Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Several days ago, when he introduced Rick Perry at a public event, he referred to Mormonism (the faith of both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) as a "cult." At the time, he was quite rightly criticized for religious bigotry.

Had he been introducing candidates in 1960, I wonder what he would have said about John F. Kennedy and his Catholicism.

In this column, Jeffress not only defended his remarks, he claimed that religion should play a role in deciding on a candidate for president. He acknowledges that Article VI of the Constitution says that there shall be no religious test for public office, but says that refers to government litmus tests, not individual judgments.

He says that religious faith "defines the essence of who we are," and so he personally gives preference to Christians (presumably evangelical ones) although he says that is not his only criteria for a voting decision. He even admits that he might wind up having to vote for Romney.

Of course, his criterion relegates whole faith groups to "second choice" status … Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, agnostics, atheists, etc. This qualifies as bigotry that has no place in American political life, either for individuals or the nation.

Religion is relevant in choosing someone for public service ONLY when someone's religious practices or ideas have a direct bearing on the office they are seeking, or the service they seek to perform.

For example, it makes a difference if an Orthodox Jew will not work on the Sabbath, even in a national emergency. (This was asked of Sen. Joseph Lieberman in 2000 when he was Al Gore's running mate; he made clear that there were exceptions when it came to Sabbath observance).

It makes a difference if a candidate like Michele Bachmann is willing to read St. Paul literally and "submit" to her husband in public decisions. In this case, who is really the candidate? (She was actually asked that question in one of the presidential primary debates, and she instantly interpreted that passage to mean that she and her husband "respected" each other. Biblical literalists had to have been horrified as Bachmann offered a "feminist" interpretation.)

But a candidate's faith is relevant ONLY if it connects with public policy, or conduct in office, in some way. Even with issues like abortion, gay marriage or the rights of workers to form unions … issues where the views of candidates are often rooted in their religion, it is the policy preference, not the candidate's faith, that should be the deciding factor. Many Catholic candidates, for example, do not follow formal teachings of their religion in policy decisions, and the same is true in other faith traditions.

So in general, religious faith is irrelevant -- and it should be irrelevant -- when it comes to running for office. It doesn't matter if someone believes in transubstantiation, or worships at a Mormon temple, or prays facing Mecca five times a day. It's not relevant if someone worships at a synagogue, or a Sikh gurdwara or an Episcopal cathedral.

What is relevant is honesty, integrity, competence, experience and intelligent policy positions. And a person of any faith, or no faith, can meet those criteria.

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