While Article VI of our Constitution provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” and the First Amendment provides clear protection against the establishment of religion by law and a guarantee of religious liberty, interest always seems to arise concerning candidates’ religious orientation and how that might affect decisions and policies.
John Kennedy’s Catholicism in 1960, Jimmy Carter’s use of the term “born again” in 1976 to describe his personal faith, and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism in 2008 occasioned much discussion.
Over time, such discussions are helpful in clarifying the Constitution’s intent in making our government religio-neutral, and we can be thankful for that.
Still, with every election cycle, the public seems to be interested in a candidate’s religious affiliation and perspective, and it is certainly reasonable to want some clarity on a person’s deepest values and how they relate to public service.
Candidates seem happy to oblige by offering words to describe their personal faith, and there is obvious care given to have that testimony appeal to parts of a potential constituency while not turning off other parts of it.
A recent forum in Des Moines, Iowa, provided specific opportunity for GOP presidential candidates to speak to this question.
It is a delicate balancing act to combine honesty and sincerity with political appeal, which seems at times to be more driven by the whims of the political marketplace than by an appreciation and respect for authenticity.
This may not be a new thing, even though it is relatively recently that explicit religious profiling has come to the table of our political process.
In the early 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli penned his famous work “The Prince” as a kind of handbook on how to govern successfully. His treatise sets out to describe the craft of getting and keeping power.
So blunt are some of his suggestions that his approach has given us the adjective “Machiavellian” to describe a calculating and ruthless management style. Many think that the term “Old Nick,” used to refer to the devil, can trace its origin to his inspiration.
In the midst of his pragmatic counsel to the prince on how to use the various tools of power to gain and keep more of it, there is some specific guidance on how to deal with the kind of commitments one might have as part of a religious faith.
It is very important, he says, to seem to be religious, because this will appeal to the people and draw their support.
It is equally important, however, not actually to be religious, because the values and commitments involved might get in the way of what one might have to do to get and keep power; and this, of course, is the primary objective.
His words remind us of the oft-made distinction between affirmed values (the ones we claim) and operative values (the ones we actually live by).
History provides abundant examples to make us wonder, when listening to public figures speak about their faith, how much of what we hear is substance and how much is packaging designed to sell the product.
Does a personal faith statement reflect a core commitment that will express itself in positions and policies that translate that faith into concrete expression, or is it a thin veneer of spirituality that perhaps even unwittingly covers a perspective quite contrary to what shows?
Even raising this question makes me uncomfortable because I hear in the background the series of admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount against judging others.
But I also hear the admonition from 1 John 4:1 to “discern the spirits” as part of responsible discipleship and citizenship in our plural context, “for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
That chapter concludes with these two verses: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this is the commandment we have from him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.”
And seeking to justify myself, I ask, “And who is my brother …?” Is it the lobbyist who brought me to the party, the undocumented neighbor down the street, the jobless parent with a sick child, the man on death row?
I guess all of us, whether seeking office or not, have to answer that question for ourselves.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).