Column: Undercurrents: A Religious and Spiritual Test for Candidates

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday January 04, 2008

The issue of religion and candidates’ faith has been raised in the presidential race. Not for the first time, in such races. Almost certainly, not for the last. It raises the question whose answer is assumed but which is rarely tackled head-on by progressives: should there be a religious test for American presidential candidates? 

As if we don’t already have one, or could stop such a test, if we chose. 

Such a test does not appear, nor should it, in the qualification section for president at Article II Section 2 of the Constitution, which reads, simply, that “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” 

But as Martin Sheen, as presidential chief of staff, remarked in the movie “An American President,” the American people have a habit of deciding for ourselves what or what not we think is an important issue, and over the years we have determined that in some form or another, religion and faith are things to be considered in making our decision as to whom we wish to elect as president. 

In fact, unlike in the case of a jury, civil or criminal, which is given legal guidelines on which to make their decision, American law, Constitutional or otherwise, is silent on what criteria a voter is to use when entering the voting booth. Constitutionally, therefore, the voters may use any yardstick, measure, or test we desire, serious or silly. We are not bound by law from considering race, gender, religion, intellect, familiarity, facial expression, facial hair, height and humor, the ability to make or grasp a point or sing a song or play a musical instrument, or any other criteria we want in deciding for whom to cast our presidential ballot. Legally speaking, all of these and more are permissible to be used in making our decision. 

But to say something is legal is not to conclude that it is proper. And so the question remains, should we apply a religious test to presidential candidates? 

Those who are against such a test almost always raise the point that had there been such criteria used by American voters a hundred and fifty years ago, it would have probably excluded the man who was arguably both our best and most spiritual president: Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was not a religious man, if we apply that term in the modern application, by which one proclaims membership in one of the multitude of religious sects. He never joined any particular church, though he attended various services, and if he considered himself a Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or other—the major American denominations of the day—he kept that fact to himself. And yet his speeches, writings, pronouncements, and remarks during his Presidency all reflect someone who thought deeply about spiritual matters, and was guided by them in a way that demonstrated such reflection. Told once that God was certainly on the Union’s side during the Civil War, a common assertion in those times that is reflected in ours, Mr. Lincoln responded that he was more concerned that we be on God’s side. That is a plainness and a thoughtfulness that would get distorted and utterly lost in the twists and turns and sound(back)byting of modern electronic politics. 

But faith and spirit and religion are an important part of an individual’s makeup, how they view the world and move through it, and I wish we had a more adult way of approaching it and discussing it in the context of the present presidential campaign. 

Much has been made of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith during this year’s Republican primary season, as it was of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s Jewish faith when he ran as the Democratic Vice presidential nominee four years ago, as it was of then-Senator John Kennedy’s Catholic faith when he ran for president in 1960. But the discussions all appeared to be a mile wide with no depth to them, the country’s Protestant majority approaching views different from theirs as if they were an oddity, as if someone showed up wearing orange at an all-red ball. The onus was on the “outsider”—the Mormon, the Jew, the Catholic—to show that they were actually no different from “us,” and, having shown, more or less, they are accepted into the fold, and we move on, ticking them off like cattle-call checkmarks on the side of a barn. A Jew can run for president. A Mormon can run for president. A Catholic can run for president, and actually win. But how much have we accomplished, and how much have we learned in the process? Little about Catholicism, Judaism, or Mormonism, I suspect. Or anything else.  

But there are differences—some of them subtle, some of them profound—between Mormonism, for example, and the various Protestant Christian denominations that are in the majority—or, at least, the plurality—of American religious belief that get lost in such a process. What we are left with is a sort of taken-for-granted commentary on the 24 hour cable news stations that Mr. Romney is still going to have trouble amongst some of the fundamentalists. But the exact nature of that trouble is only explained in 30 second clips at a time, at a rush, as if we had neither time nor patience for any more. 

I wish that the 2007-08 presidential election had been used as a time to actually hold a national discussion of Mormonism, just as I wish the 2004 election could have been used for such a discussion of Judaism, and the 1960 election a discussion of Catholicism. Not as criticism, but in the purest collegiate learning tradition in the same way, for example, that the national experience of the miniseries “Roots” sparked a national discussion of African-American history and the intertwinings of race in American history. I think that, as a nation, we would have been the better for it. There are few opportunities for such national dialogues, and these ones have passed, and, having passed, we are of the belief that they are no longer necessary. 

But since faith is such an important component of the human makeup, I think its inclusion in the presidential campaign is too critical to be left up to the candidates and their handlers themselves. Otherwise, such a “discussion” will be downgraded and relegated to endless wink-and-nod events such as the infamous Mike Huckabee commercial that the former Arkansas Governor’s handlers proclaim, all our senses roaring to the contrary, was only the studio lights catching the edge of the bookshelf just so, perhaps it was a miracle of God, but it was never actually intended to be a cross.  

It is too late for the 2008 primary season, which is upon us at the gallop, but in the fall general election campaign, and all the other campaigns to follow, I would hope that if faith and religion are so serious to us and our decisions in choosing a president, we should ourselves impose upon the candidates a serious way of discussing the issue. 

Somewhere along the endless line of presidential debates, we ought to have one in which faith and religion, alone, are discussed. Let it be in roundtable rather than podium form, to promote the impression that this is explanatory and exploratory, rather than confrontational. Intersperse the candidates with representatives of the major American faiths—not just the Christian faiths but all the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam as well—and not just the Abrahamic faiths but representatives of the elder religions that preceded them and are followed and practiced by large numbers of our fellow citizens, wicca and ifá, for example, as well as Buddhist, Hindus, and any of the other major American-practiced faiths I may have left out through my own ignorance. 

Let the discussion be about how candidates define their own faith, and how they use their particular faith to operate in the secular world and inform their political decisions. Let the various religious experts and followers interspersed pose various questions and ask how candidates might approach different situations that challenge their faith and ethics. If any candidate wants to get by with declaring that America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles, let them do so, but let them do so sitting next to one of our Jewish bretheren rather than in the friendly midst of a Pentacostal or Baptist congregation, so they might also be made to explain how and why such an assertion leaves so many Americans on the outs. Some candidates would skip such an exercise, of course, and there is certainly danger of sparking open religious warfare among those who do attend and take the matter honestly and seriously. But we are already at religious war, both in America and outside our borders. And I think that all of us, candidates and country alike, would benefit from a more public airing. 

Should there be a religious or spiritual test of American presidential candidates? It’s already happening. The only issue that remains is who is to do the testing. And how.