Culture At Large

Why a candidate's faith matters

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

Recently on Capital Commentary, Michael Gerson appropriately argued that despite the inflammatory statements made by some current Republican presidential candidates, both the Constitution and a biblical view of human dignity require that we reject any religious “test” for public office. Yet, many Christians are secretly (or not-so-secretly) uncomfortable with the idea of a Muslim - or a Mormon - in public office, particularly in the office of President.

At one level, such discomfort is understandable. Christians rightly expect candidates to be influenced by their faith and may fear that the value differences that emerge from Islam or any other different religious system will lead to radically different policy positions.  After all, justice has a uniquely Christian origin and eschatology, although it is to be extended to all humanity without discrimination,

How, then, do we marry the principle of religious freedom - grounded in a Christian view of human dignity - with the principle that faith should inform a candidate’s approach to public policy? Throughout our nation’s history, Christians have struggled with this tension. Although the Puritans came to the Americas to escape religious persecution in Europe, they established colonies in which voting was restricted to church members, limiting religious freedom while affirming a robust role for faith in public life. Others have sought to maintain religious freedom by separating faith from politics, as John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, famously articulated during the 1960 presidential campaign, assuring the electorate that the Pope would not influence his decision-making as President.

The Christian-democratic tradition provides a framework for resolving this apparent tension.  As Jim Skillen, former president of the Center for Public Justicewrote, “political communities - constituted by governments and citizens - all play their role in the unfolding drama of world history, a history in which God's authority and purposes transcend all nations and states.”  Government does not exist to privilege or promote Christianity, as some Puritans imagined.  Instead, government is ordained by God to promote justice and secure the common good for all of its citizens. Recognizing that government is an institution distinct from the church frees us to see the contributions to public justice made by people of all faiths.  As the saying goes, all truth is God’s truth, and achievements made in promoting public justice - whether by believers or non-believers - are part of God’s work of redemption and renewal.

Religious freedom is a necessary component of the justice that government should be securing for its citizens.  But attempts to separate faith from public life are fruitless since our notions of justice and our views of the responsibilities of government are inevitably derived from our faith - whether formalized in religion or not. Instead, the protection afforded by our constitutional commitment to religious freedom makes it possible to publicly acknowledge and debate the application of faith to public policy.

In the context of a political campaign, this commitment means that everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), has the right to run for office or to be considered for a political appointment. At the same time, everyone also has the right not to serve if their religious convictions prohibit them from faithfully upholding their oath of office.  In this sense, as Gerson argued, “When it comes to our public life, Americans should be judged by their behavior and their commitment to the Constitution - not by their faith.”

We must, however, hold our commitment to religious freedom alongside a recognition of the necessary role of faith in public life. This means that when voting, Christians should consider a candidate’s religious convictions. Faith informs our view of human dignity, of justice, of integrity and ethics and cannot be separated from both the political and the policy decisions elected officials make everyday. Simply choosing a candidate that claims to follow our own religious tradition will not guarantee a thoughtful application of faith to public policy and will lead to politicians giving lip-service to faith. But we cannot pretend that a candidate’s faith is irrelevant to the practice of politics. Faith matters, and candidates should be judged by the ways in which their religious convictions shape their vision of public justice.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, North America