Grad student essay contest first place: Identity politics and religious tests for candidates – By Stephanie Wise

FFRF awarded Stephanie $3,000.

By Stephanie Wise

It is tempting to point an accusatory finger solely at religious groups for their encroachment on the constitutional protection of the Establishment Clause.

No doubt we see examples of religious interference in government that threaten First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, among them same-sex marriage bans, the Mississippi religious-objection law and the Texas abortion law. But the wall of separation endures attacks from citizens, media and politicians on both the left and right, not uniformly from the religious, nor always intentional, indicating a larger cultural problem at root.

The culprit may be the national culture of identity politics, which unintentionally encourages cultural conflict, thereby arousing threats to the integrity of the separation of church and state.

Identity politics rightly enpowers communities with shared traits (such as ethnicity, class, sexuality or religion), which are able collectively to correct gaps in their legal protection. Yet, occasionally, we reap unpleasant side effects, such as the ubiquitous experience of animosity toward out-group individuals (which includes racism) or compulsory conformity.

This cultural rigidity sparks public culture wars, leading to expectations among the electorate that politicians will take sides. Espousing a political theory or specific policies is not enough; politicians must link themselves with an identity acceptable to their electorate or suffer rejection. Thus we find candidates’ religions on full display as if a qualification for office, in oblivious contradiction to the constitutional prohibition of religious tests for federal office-holders.

We see the most obvious evidence of religious intrusion in the very public realm of presidential elections. In the March Democratic debate, an audience member directed a question to Hillary Clinton: “To whom and for what do you pray?” Clinton eventually rattled off a series of civic-religious platitudes the audience would accept. Her prayer life, of course, bears no relevance to her qualifications for the presidential office.

But demanding knowledge of a candidate’s precise religious experience is clearly a demand for cultural benchmarks to categorize the candidate. Moreover, Clinton’s implicit recognition of the topic’s validity is most disturbing. When candidates allow such categorizing questions without protest, they give tacit approval to continued religious interference in public life and diminish the likelihood that they can effectively represent the interest of unreligious citizens.

Some candidates do protest, however obliquely. But even in these cases, their protest is often rebuffed. Earlier in the March debate, the same citizen posed a different question to Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Do you believe that God is relevant?” Sanders delivered a universalist response, stepping outside his religious identity to recognize universal human problems, which his religion also recognizes. But this response prompted the moderator, Anderson Cooper, to repeat a concern among Jewish leaders that Sanders purposely stifled public expression of his Judaism. The media thus corralled Sanders back into the frame of identity, forcing him to publicly display his religion.

These informal religious tests have no de jure power, but this religious culture yields a high percentage of citizens — 25% — who identify as less inclined to vote for candidates who profess a certain faith. The de facto religious test for political candidates harms the religious and nonreligious alike by encouraging, even compelling, habitual integration of religious identity in political contests.

This habit can inspire religious attacks on constitutional protections, but we ought to fear more its effects on foreign policy. In the January Republican debate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich advocated a Sunni-centric Middle Eastern foreign policy, couched in explicitly anti-Shia language. He first warned of a “Shia crescent” falling over the Middle East before opining that allies of the United States should “knock off the funding and teaching of radical clerics,” referring to an executed Saudi Shiite.

This bizarre act of pledging support to a particular Muslim sect foolishly invests the country in the identity politics of remote regions. The convoluted interplay of theocracies, religious sects and terrorist organizations in the Middle East is difficult enough to juggle without the added challenge of politicians doling out religious favoritism. In particular, this statement threatens already-tenuous relations with Iran and other non-Sunni nations. And it stems once again from the habit of identity politics, which tells politicians that it is not only permissible, but desirable, that they should cast about their opinions on religion.

More Americans engage in politics during an election year, providing candidates the unique opportunity — and difficult responsibility — of setting the agenda for many citizens at once. Candidates adhering to the Constitution cannot allow identity politics to erode our national culture any further. Each candidate who chooses sides in some foreign religious conflict, or chooses to answer questions about their personal religion, detracts from the national vision of preventing established religion. Religion sways dangerously over politics already, and shifting political culture from under its shadow is the best — perhaps the only — solution.

Stephanie Wise, 26, grew up in Naselle, Wash., and graduated from Baylor University with a degree in political science. She now attends Oregon State University (where she also works as graduate coordinator for the Department of Mathematics), while applying to graduate programs in political science. She enjoys running, hiking and reading political philosophy.

Freedom From Religion Foundation