In the South we may have been taught to shy away from talk about money and religion, but when it comes to the religious views of American presidential candidates their ideas about faith should be front and center.
This November’s presidential election will mark the first in American history where there are no white traditional Protestants on the ballot. There are two Catholic candidates for vice president, a Mormon on the republican ticket for president and an African-American mainline Protestant for the democrats. More than being attached to a particular denomination and its platform of beliefs, those seeking elected offices should be candid with voters about their personal religious ideas. If they are sincere about those beliefs and not just giving it lip service for the benefit of wooing voters, it shapes them politically.
Religion matters. And it matters in politics. Our ideas about the world are shaped through our religious beliefs and those aspiring to the Oval Office shape public policy. Before voters cast their ballots we need to know everything we can about a candidate. Just like we should ask whether Obama or Romney are members of private clubs or extremist groups or have particular affections for dog racing, we need to know as much as about their religion as we do their stance on healthcare, the job market, or government spending.
Unlike many countries, the United States has a long history of separation of church and state. In 1802, founding father Thomas Jefferson wrote “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship”.
America is a beacon of religious freedom and the people we elect to high office should uphold those rights at all costs, but their personal religious identity impacts their views on social platforms that we care about.
It’s not unconstitutional for citizens to ask to be informed on this aspect of their lives just as we are their marriages, where they went to school and whether they grew up rich, poor or somewhere in between. All these factors mold them into the candidates they’ve become and have profound influence on their decisions. Before we decide whom to entrust with the highest office in the land we have a right to know about their religious views.
Romney and Obama’s views on faith, more than their particular denomination, moved from the private realm into the realm of public scrutiny when they accepted their party’s nominations in recent weeks. Both candidates say they are heavily influenced by their faith but they haven’t told us how that translates into their politics.
We know Romney is a Mormon but how does that affect his political views? Maybe there is something in particular about his Mormon faith that would make him a stellar president but he needs to tell us what that is.
Obama, who joined the United Church of Christ in his 20s, has said he reads the Bible almost daily, and that his support of policies for the underprivileged stems from the “ethics Jesus Christ taught,” but his blend of traditional Christianity and progressive social values still remains a mystery.
A recent study of voting patterns in Congress found that legislators follow ideology and party affiliation, no matter what their religion, and a 2008 Pew study found that 44 percent of Americans have changed faiths at least once. We need to look beyond denominational lines to what a candidate’s faith means to them personally.
Anti-Catholicism almost kept John F. Kennedy out of the White House in 1960 and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were Southern Baptists, but Evangelicals opposed their nominations. It’s not about a denomination but about how religion shapes their character and belief system.
Religion is an intensely personal thing but, before a candidate finds himself occupying the West Wing, it should become a part of public domain.