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Medved Column On Religious Tests


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Michael Medved's USA Today column today focuses on religious tests for candidates, covering even the notion of voters using such a test.

The ugliest byproduct of this year's protracted struggle for the Republican presidential nomination involves the unwelcome return of the discredited, dangerous old idea of imposing religious tests on candidates for public office.

Before Rick Santorum suspended his presidential campaign, exit polls from his landslide victory in the Louisiana primary showed that a stunning 73% of Republican voters insisted that it "matters that a candidate shares my religious beliefs" — expressing the conviction that it's appropriate to judge a prospective president based on his theological orientation. Only 12% took the position that it matters "not at all" if a candidate's religious outlook differed from their own.

There's an obvious irony to this situation: Many of those same social conservatives who claim to revere the plain text of the Constitution seem determined to ignore its prohibition on religious tests for federal office.

Article VI, Clause 3 unambiguously states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." This sweeping language, adopted at the original Constitutional Convention two years before the First Amendment's famous prohibition on "establishment of religion," left so little doubt as to its meaning that not even the most imaginative jurists or politicians have attempted to interpret it away.

Professor Gerald Bradley of Notre Dame Law School flatly declares that "no federal official has ever been subjected to a formal religious test for holding office."

Difference of opinion

Of course, some fervent social conservatives will protest that the evaluation of legally qualified candidates based on their theological perspectives hardly amounts to a "religious test" officially banning aspirants from the ballot or public positions.

But most of the Founders objected even to informal religious tests and demonstrated a consistent willingness to confer positions of responsibility on those who did not share their religious beliefs.

Protestants of the Revolutionary generation felt strong antipathy to "Papists" and "the Roman Church," but devout Catholic Charles Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence and represented Maryland in the first U.S. Senate. A fellow Catholic, Commodore John Barry, was hailed as "the founder of the United States Navy," and his statue holds a place of honor adjacent to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Thomas Jefferson campaigned successfully for president in 1800 and 1804, surviving Federalist attacks on his highly unorthodox approach to Christianity and warnings against the election of a "howling atheist" and "infidel" who would place "the seal of death … on our holy religion."

A generation later, Abraham Lincoln faced similar charges in his 1846 congressional campaign with suggestions that his failure to join a church made him "an open scoffer at Christianity." Shortly before he won the election, Lincoln responded with a statement that he belonged to no church but affirming that "I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. … Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live."

Lincoln's deft move

In other words, Honest Abe shifted the discussion from an examination of his faith and practice to his unequivocal approval of the beneficial public role of religion in general — without endorsing or condemning any specific denomination or theology.

If we applied Lincoln's standard — evaluating a candidate based on his support for religious sensibilities rather than membership in a particular church —Mitt Romney would be an obvious choice for people of faith. He has devoted his life to religious service. He not only toiled for two years as a youthful missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but for 13 years he also served as a lay Mormon bishop and stake president, winning recognition as one of the most important LDS leaders in New England.

Political strategists warn against stressing these elements in his background because widespread distrust of the Mormon Church continues to influence substantial segments of the electorate. These suspicions remain mostly below the surface, unlike the open bigotry that helped doom the candidacy of New York Gov. Al Smith in 1928 as the first Catholic nominee of a major political party.

Ironically, some passionately Protestant believers who would have rejected Smith were willing to embrace his fellow Catholic Santorum as closer to their theology than the Mormon Romney. But the very process of analyzing denominational doctrine rather than reviewing values, personal biography and policy proposals betrays the core principles of pluralism, Lincoln and the Constitution.

I have said here in the past that a voter has a right to apply whatever tests he or she wishes when deciding whom to vote for, and I still hold to that, even if they just can't bring themselves to vote for a person because he or she is a [insert non-favorite religion here]. As frankenstein has pointed out in this matter, though, and Medved agrees with him, you shouldn't do it, even if you have a right to.

I suppose that if a candidate was a Wahabi Muslim, and wanted to supplant the Constitution with Sharia, I would definitely vote against that person, but not because he was a Muslim, but because of his desire to destroy the Constitution.

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But most of the Founders objected even to informal religious tests and demonstrated a consistent willingness to confer positions of responsibility on those who did not share their religious beliefs.

Most of the Founders would not vote for someone who was in radical opposition to their beliefs about government and governmental policy regardless of religion. Religion is merely a useful catch-all for voters to inform themselves about a candidate's stance on the issues. But there is a further differentiation. Belief (or not) in the trinity does not inform one about how a candidate might approach the law. But a belief in Sharia Law, for example, does. The same might hold true for a religion that practices plural marriage or marries homosexuals.

Therefore the fact that a candidate is Muslim would legitimately cause one to wonder if he or she supported or advocated the notion of Sharia Law becoming part of the body of law just as a candidate's membership in the LDS Church might cause one to legitimately wonder if he or she would support or advocate the legalization of plural marriage.

"Informal" religious tests are valid, useful, and completely ethical ways for voters to decide on their candidates.

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