Candidates and Their Beliefs

A friend asked me yesterday whether I thought a candidate’s religion was politically relevant–whether that religion should be included in the mix of qualifying or disqualifying characteristics we all consider when casting our votes.

My answer: it depends.

I think a candidate’s beliefs are always relevant. That is not the same thing as saying his/her religion is necessarily relevant. The issue is what a person wishing to hold a secular office really believes, what worldview really motivates him. The religion of a candidate only becomes relevant when the individual believes so firmly in the doctrines and culture of his religion that he can be expected to take public action based upon those doctrines.

This, of course, presents us with a bit of a paradox–not to mention an incentive to hypocrisy.

It’s a truism of political life that candidates must be seen to be religious, and religious in conventional ways. So candidates for political office–at least, Christian ones–routinely highlight their churchgoing ways.  It’s a bit dicier for members of minority religions, and admitted atheists are just out of luck. Unlike Europeans, Americans are demonstrably leery of candidates who do not claim a religious affiliation.

But we are also leery of those who seem too invested in their theologies, especially–but not exclusively–minority theologies.

When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech reaffirming the American doctrine of separation of church and state, he was really reassuring voters that his Catholicism was tempered and attenuated, and that any conflict between the Constitution and his religion would be resolved in favor of the Constitution.

Religious affiliation is only fair game in politics when we have reason to suspect that a candidate’s religious beliefs will be a primary motivator should that candidate win office–that, unlike JFK, he will resolve conflicts between the constitution and his theology in favor of the latter, or that his policy decisions will be dictated by that theology rather than by appropriate secular considerations.

In other words, if a candidate is likely to make public decisions on the basis of his religious beliefs, the content of those beliefs becomes relevant.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Mike Pence and Mitt Romney, both of whom appear to be deeply invested in their respective religions, and both of whom can be expected to govern in accordance with the tenets of those religions as they understand them. Indeed, Romney’s own “JFK speech” actually rejected Kennedy’s strong endorsement of separation of church and state, leaving little doubt that his Mormonism would influence his conduct in office. Pence, of course, is a “Christian Nation” religious extremist who has shown virtually no interest in the nitty-gritty of secular government. For both of these candidates, religious belief appears integral to their identities and highly likely to influence their behaviors in office. If that’s true, then voters are justified in examining those beliefs.

Bottom line: If a political candidate’s theology is likely to trump other motivations–or the Constitution–the contents of that theology are relevant.


  1. Christianity, Judaism and Muslim religions are based on the first five books of the Bible; each in their own format and each with many unrecognizable offshoot sects. Each believes it is the one true religion and Athiests base their beliefs in scientific study. Being a Christian, I researched my Pilgrim Edition of the Holy Bible for information regarding Christian beliefs in relation to their leaders. Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17 and Luke 20:25 stated almost verbatim, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” These statements are self-explanatory.

    I turned my search to the Constitution of the United States of America and read again Amendment 1: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This, too, is self explanatory.

    These candidates may state, expound, explain, disseminate in written or oral form, relay via all forms of media, any and all of their personal religious beliefs – they cannot however rule this country based on these beliefs.

    We are having some of these religious beliefs crammed down our throats and up other portions of our anatomy and financial problems have already been evidenced due to these personal religious beliefs. There will never be a meeting of the minds on these issues; as they are based in religion, they should not be part of any political campaign. But…how the hell do we stop them?

  2. Ms. Green:

    We stop “them” by educating ourselves before the election and not voting for them. Or, if they have already made it into public office, not voting for them again. Rinse, wring, repeat until we truly have government by the people. The problem, however, in Indiana is that most are either too stupid/apathetic to do anything about it, much less vote.

  3. The idea that atheists base their belief on scientific study is, I think, way too simplistic, apart from the possibilities of valid non-scientific knowledge.
    I have a strong and long-lived bias in favor of “public reason” – that one needs to be able to articulate one’s political positions in terms widely accepted by multiple groups in the polis. But our current partisan age is making me rethink that. There may be no such consensus terms.
    If there are no such terms, then I think that political positions built on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are no more illicit that view built on Marx, Dewey and Freud. All philosophies and religions start from presuppositions that cannot be proven. So there is, in the end, no true religious or philosophical neutrality.

  4. I understand the compulsion to single out Romney and Pence because they’re Republicans. Clear up through the end of the Clinton administration, however, the Democratic Party embraced these same virtues in their candidates.

    I respect the fact that these are NOT the same Democratic ideals that I grew up with, but if Romney and Pence are on one extreme, the other has to be Obama sitting in a church for TWENTY years and claiming that he never paid attention and couldn’t remember a single sermon. Obviously these teachings have bled through in his personal and political beliefs. The rub isn’t whether a candidate/officeholder lives out their faith through the decisions that are made on a daily basis, the rub is whether or not we AGREE with where that person’s faith has led them.

    When somebody plays up or down their faith, I think it’s easily interpreted as an attempt to appeal to their base. This makes it more of a campaign issue than anything else. Furthermore, to cut to the chase, people don’t care about social issues. I’m sure they do to an extent, but it’s at the back of a loooong line of much more pressing matters.

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