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.