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The relationship between religion and politics is always a messy one – sometimes too messy. As the recent primary elections in South Carolina and Nevada have demonstrated, politicians can easily use religion as a weapon against political rivals.

This is not new. Barack Obama, as a candidate, faced continual questions over his own faith, even though he repeatedly claimed to be a Christian. But folks still question his faith, even after he has been elected president.

However, these religious inquisitions within the political arena raise serious questions about political candidates, the nature of political campaigns and the proper place of religion in our politics. Should a political candidate be forced to defend his or her faith in order to be elected? And should candidates legitimately use religion as a weapon against political opponents?

In reading Brian Kaylor’s article on EthicsDaily.com, and in my own following of this kind of back-and-forth religious examination between candidates in which candidate “A” claims to be more religious than candidate “B,” or candidate “B” claims to be a member of the right religion, as opposed to candidate “A,” whose religion is somehow less true, I am reminded of something I heard one morning during the early campaigning of the last presidential election.

While sipping my morning coffee, I watched a reporter interview folks in a local diner on the day of one of the presidential primaries. The journalist was asking patrons of the restaurant who they would choose as their candidate for president and why they were choosing that particular contender. Most were concerned about the economy, immigration, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and any number of issues. Yet the response of one woman caught my attention and almost caused me to spill my morning cup.

When asked for whom she would vote, this particular voter responded with the name of her chosen candidate, and when asked why she would cast her vote for this particular candidate, she simply replied that he would be the right person to turn America back to religion. I thought I had actually misheard what she had said, but I was wrong. Not only had she said what I thought she said, she was also very sincere in what she said.

Don’t misunderstand me; I firmly believe that all people have the right to vote their religious consciences, even if I or anyone else does not agree with them. Indeed, in our democracy, people who are eligible to vote can vote for any particular candidate for any particular reason. Moreover, there is certainly nothing wrong with voting for a person because that candidate is religious.

The problem that I see in making the religious faith of a candidate a determining factor for voting for that candidate – and especially in using religion as a political tool to either make oneself look better to the voters or to cast religious doubt on one’s opposition – is that we can confuse the personal faith of a public official with the idea that he or she should be a religious leader in our government. This seems to be what the woman in that coffee shop was saying, and it seems to be what happened in both South Carolina and Nevada, and probably in other elections.

But should a candidate’s religious preference or the lack of religious preference be a vital part of his or her campaign? Should a candidate’s personal faith be fair game in political elections? Must a candidate for any office succumb to the constant badgering from those who question his or her faith as a qualification for carrying out the duties of the office for which he or she seeks election?

The short answer to this question ought to be that while the personal faith of a candidate for public office may be important to a block of voters, this does not mean that the candidate needs to prove his or her faith, and it certainly does not mean that the candidate’s role in government is to lead America back to religion, as if religion has somehow vacated our country.

There are some very important reasons that such a distinction must be kept. First, America was founded on the principle of the separation of church and state. While some have challenged this fundamental principle of American identity, history is on the side of those who maintain this separation.

Learning from the long history of religious violence and oppression in Europe, the founders of this nation, while affirming the importance of religion, drew a clear line between the roles of the church and those of the state. That line is always hard to keep clear, but it becomes very blurry when political candidates are valued foremost for their religious views.

Second, while the U.S. Constitution gives many roles and authorities to those elected to federal offices, and while various state constitutions outline the responsibilities of state officials, these documents do not include religious leadership as a duty.

There are certainly times in the life and struggle of a nation where certain elected officials, such as a president or a governor of a state, symbolically serve a quasi-pastoral function, giving comfort to those who have suffered great tragedies. Moreover, by virtue of the power of these offices, elected officials must act justly by making just legislation, which can have religious correlations. But in no way do elected officials serve as religious leaders.

Third, and perhaps most important for the modern era of American life, the multicultural fabric of our society has also produced a multireligious civilization in which all should have freedom of religion and equal rights. While a candidate is free to choose his or her personal religious faith, and he or she may find strength from that faith to carry out the role to which she or he is elected, no elected official can become the promoter of any religion, including their own religion or the dominant religion of their constituency.

To do so will inevitably lead to the endorsement of one religion over others, whether such an endorsement is implicit or explicit. In a democracy of religious diversity, to promote one religious perspective over others would result in the suppression, and perhaps oppression, of other religious views.

In a democracy, where the power over government rests with the vote of each citizen, the fundamental belief is that people can make reasonable and moral choices. And while those citizens have the right to make their choices based on religion, they must also understand that moral choices and good government are not solely dependent on religion or on a person who is a religious leader. The key to a just and moral society in which the religious and nonreligious are free and equal citizens is in finding the common moral ground on which just legislation is promoted to achieve the common good for all, religious or not.

Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.

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