Imagine a candidate for public office who says he admires the teachings of Jesus Christ but writes a letter listing all of the doctrines of Christianity he doesn’t accept. Among them are the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the miracles described in the New Testament, original sin and the virgin birth.
Would you vote for such a candidate? If you said no, you’ve just rejected Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president.
The sad fact is, many Americans today would vote against such a candidate. They’d reject him out of hand — even if they agreed with his stands on political issues — because of his unconventional religious views.
Those who are skeptical of religion have an especially tough time of it in American politics. Polls by the Pew Forum and other groups have shown that most Americans are more than willing to vote for Jewish candidates, Catholic candidates and others, but they remain wary of atheists (and Muslims). It took years for atheists to get to a point where more than 50 percent of respondents said they would vote for them.
Why does religion matter to so many voters? Shouldn’t we care more about a candidate’s vision for our community, state or country than her mode of worship? (Or if she worships at all?)
Consider, for example, local government — the branch that is closest to the people and often deals with issues that really hit home. Does a Baptist mayor fill potholes better than a Hindu? Will an Episcopalian balance the city budget better than a Muslim?
The simple fact is, in most cases, a politician’s religious views have little or nothing to do with how he or she does the job. Ironically, the only time it tends to matter is when an extremely religious person decides he won’t do parts of his job because of his religious beliefs — or when he decides to impose that faith on everyone else.
This occurred in the case of Kim Davis in Rowan County, Kentucky. Davis is an elected county clerk, and that means part of her job involves giving wedding licenses to qualified couples.
But Davis, a devout fundamentalist Christian, opposes marriage between people of the same gender and thus decided those folks would get no licenses in her government office, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling notwithstanding. She even ordered her subordinates not to issue them.
The matter ended up in court, and the state Legislature weighed in as well. Eventually, a compromise was reached that enabled same-sex couples to get licenses without Davis’ name on them.
In this case, it wasn’t Davis’ beliefs that caused problems; it was her insistence that those beliefs should excuse her from doing the job she’d been elected to do. Davis could have personally opposed marriage equality while recognizing that the law compels her to treat all couples with respect and issue them licenses. Many political leaders are able to make a distinction between their private beliefs and their public duties.
These days, more and more people are saying they can’t or won’t recognize that distinction. When that person is a government official charged with the task of representing and serving everyone equally, there will be trouble.
How do we resolve this matter? Instead of badgering candidates about their personal religious beliefs, as Americans are wont to do, maybe we should ask other, more relevant, questions.
Anyone can claim to be religious. During his years as a real estate developer and reality TV star, Donald Trump was hardly known for his piety. Suddenly, he’s waving a Bible and claiming to be evangelicals’ best friend.
Many would say it’s an act, but rather than trying to judge the depth of a candidate’s religious commitment, we’d do better to ask Trump, Hillary Clinton and others some pointed questions: What do you think the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom means? Do you support freedom of conscience for all — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, non-believers and so on? Is there anything about your faith that will make it hard for you to do your job as a public official? How do you interpret the separation of church and state?
American voters spend too much time obsessing over religion. Rather than quiz candidates about where they worship and their favorite Bible verse, we’d do better to ask them where they want to take our city, state or nation.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (www.au.org). He wrote this for InsideSources.com.