Religious Tests for Public Office: Robert Weitzel

He won my vote when he talked about religion.”–Candice Collins


Debra and Robert Weitzel at the 30th annual FFRF convention in Madison, Wis., in October. Photo by Brent Nicastro

By Robert Weitzel

This summer at an “Ask Mitt Anything” forum in Iowa, a teacher at a local Christian school asked Mitt Romney where the bible would be in his decision-making as president: “Would it be above the Book of Mormon, or would it be beneath it?” Mr. Romney replied, “This is a nation where people come from different faiths, different doctrines, different churches.”

Then tactically, if not disingenuously, he added, “But, unlike the people we’re fighting over in the Middle East, we don’t have a religious test to say who should be able to run our country. It’s over there where people say, ‘You don’t go to my church, you can’t run our country.’ “

Had he been less concerned with passing this teacher’s particular religion test, he might have added more honestly, “But as you know, it’s over here where people say, ‘You don’t go to church, you can’t run our country.’ “

Article VI of the Constitution states in part that ” . . . no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Yet the realpolitik of American political campaigning is that all candidates for public office must pass a religious test. It is not a “de facto” religious test. It is the real McCoy. But it has become the de facto law of our “Christian nation.”

Alarmed by the encroaching influence of the Christian Right on the Republican Party platform specifically, and on American politics in general, Barry Goldwater, then-Republican senator from Arizona, warned his fellow senators in 1981: “The religious factions . . . are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100% . . . I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.”

Over a quarter of a century later, John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona–Goldwater’s immediate successor–confirmed Goldwater’s prescience and fears in an interview with Dan Gilgoff of BeliefNet. When asked if a presidential candidate’s personal faith has become too big an issue, McCain replied, “I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, ‘Will this person carry on in the Judeo-Christian principled tradition . . .’ ” McCain then stated that ” . . .the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”

For a U.S. senator, whose secular “bible” is the Constitution, to make such a statement is either inexcusable ignorance or plain pandering. To appreciate how wrong-headed this notion is, imagine a white politician seriously claiming that since a preponderance of their state’s population is Caucasian, it is a white state. Of course, they will quickly add that people of all colors are welcome . . . sort of. Albinos, on the other hand . . . ?

As Republican candidates squeeze into the revival tent this campaign cycle, they find themselves sitting next to a newly-converted Democratic candidate whose hands are raised in exaltation, albeit a bit self-consciously.

On a June 4 special religion edition of CNN’s “The Situation Room” featuring Democratic candidates, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton were grilled by moderator Soledad O’Brien with a series of intrusive religious questions. While during that “debate” Edwards volunteered the firmest support for a separation of church and state, he also offered a veritable glossolalia of fundamentalist God-speak and political correctness, testifying, “I have a deep and abiding love for my Lord, Jesus Christ . . .”

In a follow-up question on the same broadcast, a minister asked Edwards the evangelical equivalent of “Did you beat your wife again last night?” She asked: “When you pray, how do you know if the voice that you are hearing is the voice of God or your own voice in disguise?” What was Edwards supposed to say? “Yes, I hear voices that tell me what to do” or “No, I don’t take the advice of the creator of the entire universe?” What he did say was worthy of a politician, and a telling example of the “point of singularity” to which the Christian Right has shrunk political discourse in America: ” . . . some would argue we sometimes have trouble telling the difference . . .”

Hillary Clinton, like John Edwards, is not exactly sure which way to step as she nudges her way into the evangelical tent. Responding to Soledad O’Brien’s observation that she doesn’t talk a lot about her faith, Clinton said, ” . . . I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves . . .”What Senator Clinton failed to mention to O’Brien and millions of viewers is that she doesn’t need to wear her faith on her sleeve since it is written down in the 352 pages of Paul Kengor’s recent book, God and Hillary Clinton: A Spiritual Life. Paul Kengor has written two other books with similar titles: God and Ronald Reagan and God and George W. Bush. Could it be Clinton doesn’t want to bask in the reflected light of these two ultra right-wing conservative luminaries?

On October 6, Barack Obama asked the 12,000 congregants of the Redemption World Outreach Center to “pray that I can be an instrument of God” as he campaigns for the presidency.

Three of the first four presidents of the United States, all of whom were instrumental in drafting either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, would be unelectable today if certain of their thoughts on religion were worn on their sleeves. Imagine denying Adams, Jefferson and Madison a leadership role in government.

There are small, encouraging signs that the electorate is growing tired of the Sunday school miasma pervading our “Christian nation’s” political process. A recent poll conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Survey Research and Analysis found that 68% responded that they “don’t like it when politicians rely on their religion in forming their policy,” and 44% said religion plays too large a role in American politics.

If this religious test for public office goes unchallenged, religious platitudes will continue to pass for serious political discourse and to influence both domestic and foreign policy. We render unelectable eminently qualified women and men who choose to keep their faith a private matter or to wear their “faithlessness” on their sleeves. Our nation’s public square will continue as the exclusive meeting place of the faithful.

Foundation member Robert Weitzel, Wis., is a freelance writer and contributing editor to MWC News. His essays regularly appear in The Capital Times in Madison, Wis. He has been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Skeptic Magazine, Freethought Today, and on popular liberal websites.

Freedom From Religion Foundation