A recent panel discussion at Washington, D.C.’s Wesley Theological Seminary concluded that presidential candidates should talk about their faith and recognized that the voting public expects them to do so.
The specific faith of a candidate seems to be more of an issue in recent years, with John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run an apparent turning point – though Al Smith, like Kennedy a Roman Catholic, felt the negative effects of his faith on his campaign for the presidency in 1928.
What’s the real issue? Could it be that faith per se isn’t the problem – does Candidate X believe in God or not? – but whether a candidate’s faith seems to fit with some unspoken model of “real American religion”?
Kennedy and Smith were both suspect because their Catholicism was different from the dominant “civil religion” in America, a sort of generic Protestantism rooted in American history and not tied to any trans-national organizations.
Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has been questioned, both this year and during the last presidential election cycle, because it’s easy to identify differences, quirks, and outright oddities (from the dominant perspective) in the history and beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, a Muslim, was elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, he chose a Quran for his swearing-in, prompting outrage from some circles. Conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager stated at the time that “America is interested in only one book, the Bible.”
And President Obama has faced continuing suspicion that he is not Christian (though he was baptized as an adult and formally committed to a large and prominent church congregation in my own denomination, the United Church of Christ).
The Constitution of the United States (Article VI, paragraph 3) declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Yet we expect our politicians to profess their personal belief in God, at least in certain formulaic ways. The phrase from the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence – “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” – was not only an amendment to the original, but rather vague as to the identity of said deity.
The most candid expression of this ambivalent attitude is probably that of President Eisenhower, who said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
As the world around us continues to change, and as those changes appear closer to home – evidenced by the increasing percentage of our population that is non-white and the appearance of Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu worship spaces in many communities – there’s an inevitable (if lamentable) backlash.
Some people will always want to hold on to a past they experienced as ideal, resisting the signs of change in our midst by promoting certain standards, declaring certain “facts” about our history, and restricting differences. I hope our national fixation on candidates’ faith isn’t an attempt to turn back the clock and enshrine a particular brand of religion as normative.
When I enter the voting booth on Election Day, I don’t want to know what a candidate believes or what faith community he or she belongs to. I want to know what they’re going to do to solve the problems that plague our community, and how they’re going to safeguard the rights and protect the lives of all people.
My faith informs my opinions about those things, but I’m happy to work with people of any faith – or no faith – who want to accomplish the same things I do, for the benefit of our entire community and nation. That’s more important to me than shared religious identity, especially in such a diverse nation as ours.