Staying Secular: The Specter of Religion in the Voting Booth: Kelly Besercherer

Kelly was awarded $500 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for her third place award-winning entry in the 2008 essay competition for new high school grads who are college-bound in the fall.

by Kelly Besercherer

There’s a very simple reason that we separate church and state: politics and religion simply do not mix. Faith, which is a personal, private matter, has absolutely nothing in common with the tasks demanded of someone in a public office. That’s the way it should be, and our constitution agrees. Yet, since the Constitution was written over 200 years ago, we have consistently ignored this idea. There is an implicit assumption on the part of the American people that faith is nearly as important a facet of any potential politician’s campaign as policy.

According to recent polls, 69% of Americans agree that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs (Pew Forum). In another poll, those surveyed were asked whether, if an otherwise well-qualified candidate had characteristic X, they would still vote for them (Gallup poll). Atheism was far and away the most politically damaging characteristic–only 46% of Americans said that they’d be willing to vote for a godless candidate (56% said they would vote for a homosexual).

We’ve already seen how huge a factor faith has been in this year’s presidential campaign: Romney’s Mormon faith created serious setbacks in his bid for the nomination, and may even have been what cost him it. Huckabee founded his campaign largely on religion and received evangelical support accordingly. Barack Obama is still criticized for his church, which is perceived as being too radical. The candidates have all pushed theologizing politics and stopped at churches on their campaign trail to give speeches.

It’s over the top, but, of course, this is hardly something new. In the 2000 election, George W. made religious appeals to potential voters, claiming Jesus Christ as “[his] favorite philosopher.” Falwell and his “Moral Majority” used religious influence to shape the race between Carter and Reagan. Since our country’s inception we have yet to elect a single president who was not Christian. Even then, only one of those wasn’t Protestant.

Nor is this something we’ve witnessed only in the presidential arena: in the history of America, there’s only been one member of Congress who was a self-admitted atheist. Even that one waited until last year, at the twilight of his career, to profess his lack of religious affiliation.

So, religion is clearly a value that’s been deeply ingrained into America’s psyche. But before we jump to criticizing it, it’s important that we understand exactly why it is that Americans believe religion has a place in politics. Religious candidates are typically perceived to somehow have more “moral fiber” than otherwise similar nonreligious candidates. Disregarding for a moment the flawed thinking there, let’s consider this idea. It still doesn’t make clear for us why, say, a Christian is preferable to a Muslim. If faith alone is what gives one a set of morals to be held accountable to, both of these religions should be equally valid in the eyes of the voting public, and yet they’re clearly not. Although being a Mormon or a Jew is less politically damaging than being an atheist, according to the same survey mentioned earlier, espousing either religion is still likely to hurt any bid for public office. This apparent disconnect between reality and the so-called logic used by those who claim faith is important in the world of politics should give us pause.

It’s not difficult to understand how one’s feelings about religion, which are personal and highly emotional, might make one act with less than solid logic. This returns us to the original point of precisely why it’s so dangerous to let religious considerations enter into the world of public policy. Decisions which affect the entire country should be based upon rational observations of the facts, and pragmatic considerations of what would be best for everyone, rather than our own subjective feelings. Letting emotions blur our outlook on the world is unprofessional and undesirable.

Wanting your candidate to have “moral fiber” is understandable, but letting prejudice influence you into thinking only your religion can produce that moral fiber is not. Voters can apply their own religious tests, if they so desire, and base their vote solely on the strength of their candidate’s belief in the fires of hell. Before they do, they should stop and think.

Our country proscribes any official test of religion from being administered to candidates, for a number of very good reasons. First, that policy should be enacted on the fluid idea of what’s best for the people, using as much critical thinking as possible, rather than deferring blindly to dogma to make our decisions for us. We’ve all seen what happens in theocracies, and there’s no need to dredge up historical examples or point to Middle Eastern unrest. Similarly, no one wants to return to the days when kings ruled by “divine right” and could justify any and all of their actions in the name of god. These examples are extreme, but help to get across the idea of precisely why religion and politics are an unsavory mix.

Secondly, we are, after all, a rather diverse group of people. We can’t be defined by one creed or religion, and should not be. We are a secular republic and embrace the faiths of many and none. A candidate wishing to represent the American people should appeal not just to American Christians, but to everyone.

When voters step into the booth, they would do well to remember these ideals. They should try to be more responsive to nonChristian candidates–first, perhaps, at the state and county level, because only then will it follow on a nation-wide level. But since the de facto religious test which currently exists is one which was enacted by our own collective prejudice, rather than by the government, it is only we as a voting public who can choose to remove it. Let us replace doctrinaire ideas with open-mindedness. And for their part, it wouldn’t hurt if the candidates would cut out the pulpit preaching and the not-so-subtle reminders of their unwavering belief in a god. The next time a reporter quizzes them on religion, stepping back and pointing out how irrelevant such a question is would be making a strong step in the right direction.

I will be a first-year student this fall at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn. I currently plan to double-major in physics and philosophy, and to minor in as many things as will possibly fit in my schedule. My interests include sewing, art, accordion playing, bike riding, staying up all night reading, Russian history and free thought.

Freedom From Religion Foundation