The Religion of Candidates: Does it Matter?


[1] Should citizens consider the religious identity of candidates?   The constitutional answer is no.   The Constitution itself mentions religion only once; Article VI forbids religious litmus tests for public office. At a time when many state constitutions included religious litmus tests for holding public office, this was a bold move.   Calling for an institutional separation of church and state, our founders directed that we judge our candidates by their political ideas, not their religious identities. 

[2] From a theological angle, Martin Luther is reported to have said something similar to the prohibition against religious litmus tests. In the kingdom of this world, he said that he would rather by ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian. While he preached for citizens to accept the Christian gospel, he seemed to say that both Christians and non-Christians should make political decisions using reason. While reason is seemingly secular, Luther would say that it is created by God. All of creation is created by God.

[3] The voters of Minneapolis recently elected Keith Ellison, a Muslim, to the congressional seat long held by Martin Sabo, a Norwegian Lutheran. Muslims are a minority in Minneapolis; Catholics and Lutherans-mostly Norwegian Lutherans like Sabo--predominate. The citizens of Minneapolis did not consider Ellison's non-Christian identity to be a liability. He had lots of impressive opponents along the way, but voters seemed to take the prohibition against religious litmus tests to heart.

[4] Recent presidential elections present a similar picture. In 2000, Southern Baptist Al Gore ran against a Mainline Protestant, George W. Bush. Yet most Baptists voted for Bush while Gore did better than most Democrats among Mainline Protestants. Mainline Protestants usually lean Republican, yet Bill Clinton and Al Gore-both Southern Baptists-have significantly reduced the Republican advantage.

[5] In 2000, conservative evangelicals were attracted to George W. Bush who proclaimed that Jesus was his favorite philosopher; the denomination of Bush's religious membership did not concern them. Al Gore attempted to woo conservative evangelicals by telling them that when he made crucial decisions as Vice-President, he would always ask, "WWJD?," What would Jesus do? But it wasn't enough.

[6] Something similar happened in the 1980 presidential election when southern (and northern) evangelical Christians rejected Jimmy Carter, a Sunday-School teaching Southern Baptist with a fervent evangelical faith. Rejecting Carter, they eagerly supported Ronald Reagan, a man whose divorce and worship habits distinguished him from most evangelical believers.  

[7] So the evidence shows that the religious identities of candidates are less important. This is good news for a candidate like Mitt Romney, a Mormon. In the abstract most voters reject the idea of a Mormon president. Yet Romney's emergence as a Republican frontrunner suggests that citizens overlook his religious identity once they get to know the man and his ideas. 

[8] In a nation wracked by a history of religious bigotry, this is a positive development. Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism in particular are unfortunate parts of American History.    In the nineteenth century, the Know Nothing Party was one example of a movement formed to challenge Catholics. Virulent anti-Semitism prevailed far too long in the twentieth-century. Now in the twenty-first century, religious hate crimes still wound the body politic. The evidence of Lutherans and Catholics voting for a Muslim candidate, of conservative evangelicals voting for a Mainline Protestant suggests that religious bigotry has diminished.

[9] Yet declining religious bigotry does not mean that religion is irrelevant to political choices. In the United States, our constitutional prohibition against religious litmus tests is juxtaposed with a guarantee of religious liberty.   After the Constitution was ratified in 1787, the founders added a first amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion. With that amendment, religious pluralism has flourished in the United States.    A look at any phone book reveals a multitude of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious associations. In terms of actual practice, U.S. levels of religious activity dwarf the activity of other developed nations. More Americans say they believe in God, pray to God, believe in miracles, go to worship etc. etc. Our constitution created a secular state that coexists with a religious citizenry. 

[10] Citizens celebrate this religious activity-and also fear it. Similarly, the American founders worried about religious intolerance, but sought religious justice. Fearing religion, James Madison thought that religion could lead to "bigotry and persecution." Some founders sought to ban clergy from holding public office. Yet the founders also thought that religion was essential to the survival of the republic. John Adams, our second president, said that "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."   Thomas Jefferson, often attacked as personally irreligious, also believed in the importance of religion for the public sphere. He wrote, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God?"

[11] Indeed, American history is filled with both religious bigotry-and the prophetic proclamations of religious traditions. The movement to end slavery began in Quaker meeting houses. The civil rights movement would never have occurred without the organizational and inspirational support of churches. Churches also have played a key role in a long list of other issues: the opposition to the Vietnam War, the support of women's suffrage, the populist and progressive response to industrial capitalism, resistance to communism, the battle against apartheid, the struggle over abortion.... The list goes on.

[12] People of faith believe in a power beyond this world; but they are also drawn to the struggles of this world. When believers read their scriptures and holy books, they read calls for peace and justice. For example, when Christians read that whatever they do to the poor is service to Christ, they are compelled to enter a world of poverty and injustice. People of faith respond with both acts of charity-and power politics. 

[13] Yet scripture seems less clear about the right answers. Is the SCHIP health care proposal consistent with Biblical calls to care for the poor? Is the Iraq war immoral?   Many think that it is, but there is little certainty. Values of peace and justice animate faithful politics; yet the fallen-ness of humanity make political attributions of divine favor tenuous. Mindful of human frailty and sin, humility is a forgotten virtue of faith. 

[14] Abraham Lincoln saw divine significance in the Civil War. He was so convinced of his cause that he committed the nation to its bloodiest war. Half a million citizens died in that war, ten times the number that died in Vietnam. While he acted boldly, Lincoln also viewed his cause with humbleness. While he felt that God led him to action, he did not claim God for his side. In his Second Inaugural address, he said


In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both maybe and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party--and yet human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose.

 [15] In the twenty-first century, God's will transcends the actions of any candidate or party. People of faith enter the great contests of our day "with malice toward none and charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." Inspired by their faith, believers work to create a cleaner environment, better education and health care systems, a moral citizenry, a just economy. Peace, justice and humility are the guideposts of faith. 


© November 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 11