November 2011 Church & State | Editorial

During last month’s “Values Voter Summit,” a nasty flap erupted over what qualifications an American president ought to have.

Introducing Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas insisted that the president be “a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The line was a shot at Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon. Outside the conference hall, Jeffress went even further, deriding Mormonism as a cult and calling the faith “not Christian.”

Jeffress’ intolerance is deplorable, but the underlying message of his perspective is even worse. Under Jeffress’ vision, it’s not just Mormons who are excluded from office but anyone who is not a “born-again” Christian. This would shut out not just Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and atheists but also plenty of Christians as well.

Many evangelicals believe that a “born-again” experience is necessary for a full appreciation of the Christian faith. But millions of Americans who worship in mainline Christian churches every Sunday disagree. They read the Bible, follow the teachings of Jesus and take part in the sacraments – all without being “born again.”

Bryan Fischer, a staffer at the American Family Association, goes even further. According to Fischer, the next president must be a fundamentalist Christian and must deny evolution as well.

President Jimmy Carter is a born-again Christian – yet he believes in evolution. Fischer would undoubtedly argue that Carter isn’t really born-again or hasn’t gone about it in the right way and is still unfit for public office.

Therein lies the problem. In a country with hundreds of faiths and many varieties of Christianity, who are we to set up as arbiters of what constitutes “authentic” faith? Fischer sincerely believes his version is correct. But down the street from him there is a devout Roman Catholic who believes she’s right. Not far from her is a Muslim who believes they are both wrong. Around the corner lives an atheist who rejects all of those faiths.

Government is in no position to wade into a theological swamp to settle disputes like this. In fact, we have a First Amendment to prevent that very sort of thing.

We also have a provision in our Constitution – Article VI – that bars religious tests for public office. Perhaps Jeffress and Fischer and all of those who follow them should read it.

They should also read some history books. They would learn that attempts to limit office to the “right” kind of believers always fail. They fail because it inevitably falls to some fallible government official to determine what is “right” in matters of orthodoxy. That path leads to persecution.

There is a better way: Stop worrying about where candidates worship – or if they belong to any faith tradition at all – and ask instead where they plan to take this nation.