Ballots And Belief: Is There Room For God In The Voting Booth?

Maybe I don’t want my president to think he gets direct instructions from the Almighty. Maybe I don’t want my president to think creationism is good science.

I graduated not so long ago from an all-male private high school, properly considered parochial, I’d say, for more than just its Catholic affiliation. And so, some of my freshest memories there date from the 2008 election.

I remember, for example, when – faced with the prospect of She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in the White House – Canada suddenly became just as appealing to my conservative classmates as it already was to me. And I can picture vividly (and no doubt hyperbolically – my flashbacks sometimes involve spittle) classmates decrying Mitt Romney for his Mormonism, a religion some labeled as a “cult.” They believed his reverence for Joseph Smith’s gold-tablet revelations made him unsuitable.

But wait, I said. Wait, wait, wait.

What about y’all’s Jesus? You know: water-walking, virgin-birthed, water-to-wine Prince of Peace. What, I protested, would make Catholics and Protestants intrinsically more electable than Mormons?

According to the American electorate, something does. If we look at the Pew Forum’s recent poll, liberal Democrats – not Catholic conservatives – have the biggest concern about a Mormon president. While 68 percent of Americans find a candidate’s Mormonism electorally irrelevant, 25 percent say they’d be less likely to support a Mormon, a number that grows to 41 percent when isolating the liberal Democratic demographic.

My question, then, is not whether Americans do care about their candidates’ religions since of course they do. Nor is it can we? After all, the government can’t dictate on what “have-a-beer-with” or “pretty-smile” grounds I vote.

My question rather is: should we?

I admit my first instinct is to say no. Call it political correctness, liberality or whatever.

Apposite here is one of the Constitution’s very few mentions of religion. Article VI protects office-seekers from religious tests, a discriminatory practice common in Great Britain and some American colonies. An oath or affirmation to uphold the Constitution, sure, but “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

No doubt another job-well-done by the Framers. We ought not to be halting campaigns solely on the basis of religious belief, after all.

But if we can’t institutionalize what amounts to religious discrimination, should we let it factor in public opinion? Should we tolerate or even encourage its relevance among the voters?

I worry about faiths (and non-faiths, as this comic strip rightly points out) enduring stigma, de facto keeping them out of office because of misinformed stereotypes. Atheists have no morals without God, we hear some say; how could we elect them? Catholics are all beholden to the Church in Rome, they said of John F. Kennedy; he could never represent our interests.

And if we approve the scrutiny of religious faith among our candidates and make it an implicit – no, that’s not quite right – make it very publicly explicit that we will only vote for the church-going and the God-fearing, then we force politicians to lie to us, to fake their faith. No one said it better than West Wing Republican presidential candidate Arnie Vinick, one of many brilliant speeches from an altogether brilliant series.

And yet, I can’t say my reservations are without reservations.

Let’s look back again to the 2008 primary race. A very memorable moment for me was when three of the Republican candidates raised their hands when asked, “Is there anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution?” And before that, George W. Bush claimed that “God told him to end the tyranny in Iraq.” (Maybe he missed God’s follow-up on the absence of WMD.) The list goes on. And on.

Maybe there are founded concerns about candidates’ religions. Maybe I don’t want my president to think he gets direct instructions from the Almighty. Maybe I don’t want my president to think creationism is good science.

But what’s too far? Where’s the proverbial line-drawing? Is it secular candidates or bust?

I don’t think so. (Thankfully – the alternative would certainly leave viable candidates few and far between.)

I don’t think any candidate’s Christian belief in resurrection or transubstantiation (though it might not be my own) should preclude him/her from office. And it’d be parochial of me to think so. If a Buddhist or Hindu candidate goes in for reincarnation, so be it.

I think, maybe, I draw the line when religious belief impacts or dictates public policy, when it will impose on what I believe or don’t believe. So, scratch what I said above. It’s not that I care that my president’s dialoguing skyward; I care when he or she makes weighty policy decisions based on those conversations, rather than on our intel. It’s not that I care my president thinks creationism is good science; I care when he or she thinks it’s appropriate for high school biology class.

To be sure, this needs more puzzling and sorting and considering. But as we all gear up for the 2012 presidential race, we should at least remain aware of how and why we care about our candidates’ perspectives on religion – not just that we do.

Kurt Ostrow -- Brown University '13.5, Religious Studies -- is interning with Americans United’s Field Department this summer.