Does a Candidate’s Religion Matter?

With Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman running for the Republican nomination for president, their religion keeps coming up. They’re Mormons. A similar thing happened in the 1960 election with John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism. There is a long history of anti-Catholic sentiment in America, and people in the 1950s were suspicious of Catholics. The same is true of the home-born religion of Mormonism. A number of Supreme Court rulings on the church’s beliefs regarding polygamy didn’t help the American-made religion, and neither do several of their strange and secret rituals.

Those who argue that a person’s religion should not be an issue appeal to the Constitution, in particular Article VI, paragraph 3:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal organization defending religious liberties, is critical of voters who evaluate candidates on the basis of their religious views. “The Constitution is really clear. We’re not to have religious tests for office,” he states. “That’s spelled out in Article VI of the Constitution.” True enough. The problem with Whitehead’s argument is that the constitutional prohibition is directed at what the federal government can’t require. There is nothing in the Constitution that says that a voter can’t evaluate a candidate’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.

The Constitution also requires that “No person . . . shall be eligible to [the office of President] who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States” (Art. II, Sec. 1). Does this mean that a 35-year-old candidate shouldn’t be questioned about his abilities given his young age? Ronald Reagan was thought by some to be too old. He was 69 when he took office in 1981. There is no age limit set in the Constitution, yet there are a lot of people who take age into consideration when they vote.

Reagan turned concern about his age on its head during his 1984 re-election campaign when he promised not to “exploit, for political purposes,” the “youth and inexperience” of his 56-year-old Democrat challenger, Walter Mondale. The age question haunted John McCain as well. And yet the Constitution does not put an upper limit on a person’s age.

While the Constitution does prohibit a “religious test,” the same article states, “the Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution.”

Nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff wrote, “‘in recognizing and requiring an official oath’ for both state and federal officeholders, ‘the Constitution recognizes the Supreme Being, to whom the oath is a solemn appeal.’”1 George Washington added “so help me God” after taking the constitutional oath.2 Most presidents since Washington have followed his example.

O course, taking an oath before God and because God is, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “the Supreme Judge of the world” who most certainly takes a person’s oath seriously, does not mean that a president will abide by that oath. But in a day that such an oath before God meant something, men of principle would resign from office rather than violate that oath. Today, oath taking is a formality.

In recent years, the words “so help me God” have been challenged. They were stricken from the written oath of office that Notaries take in order to serve in the state of Florida. “Those words never should have been there to begin with,” Ken Rouse, general counsel for the Florida Department of State, said. Religious leaders from Miami to Jacksonville were shocked. “This is frightening, that one person could sway the state to change things like that,” said Glen Owens, assistant executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention in Jacksonville. “How can they completely abolish a system of doing things for one person?” The Reverend Gerard LaCerra, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Miami understands the implications of the ruling. “What are we supposed to base our commitments on if something like this is removed? The state?”3 Yes, the State. There is no higher authority in America today. The courts have said so.

Getting away from a religious oath has not made America anymore free of compulsion. In fact, it has made us less free. What few people seem to realize is that there are all types of non-religious belief systems that hold to an absolutist ideology and use the power of the State to impose that ideology on others. Civil governments can confiscate property nearly at will, increase taxes, put people in prison for crimes against the State, conscript us to fight in undeclared and declared foreign wars, mandate how many MPG our cars must get, order what type of toilets we can use, require that foods don’t contain certain fats, reduce our use of salt, force us to buy a certain type of light bulb, and so much more.

The law of the land is enforced by the full authority of the civil government that makes laws outside the jurisdictional authority of the Constitution. When a law is put on the books, it is made absolute. There are tens of thousands of laws overseen and implemented by unelected bureaucrats. A law doesn’t have to be tied to any particular traditional understanding of religion to be enforced by the power of the State. In fact, the above short list of government freedom-inhibiting laws is not tied to any particular religious creed, but the result is still the same — State absolutism!

A secular ideology can be just as sacrosanct and absolute as any religious doctrine or creedal formulation. Consider the proposal to tax soft drinks in San Francisco.4 The mayor says that high fructose corn syrup leads to obesity which puts a strain on the city’s health care system. This proposed law is overtly religious in that it is designed to “save the children” from the potential harm of sugar-saturated soft drinks. What will be next? Pizza? Potato chips? Fries and a Big Mac? Video games and computers that contribute to a sedentary lifestyle among young and old?  Maybe one day we’ll be forced to walk a certain number of miles each day because healthcare is now mandate and price-controlled by the State. You may have to have regular doctor visits so your dietary habits can be monitored. More regular visits may be required if your caloric intake is above State limits.

Christians who understand the proper mix of religion and politics would argue that it’s not the role of civil government to micro-manage people’s lives. There is no prescription in the Bible to use the power of civil government to control a person’s diet through taxation. Long before there were high fructose corn syrup drinks, there were fat people. The king of Eglon was fat (Judges 3:17, 22), and Eli is described as “old and heavy” (1 Sam. 4:18).

The Bible warns against drunkenness and gluttony (Prov. 23:20–21), but there is no call to tax alcoholic beverages and food in an attempt to modify these behaviors. A change in these behaviors comes by way of persuasion and the marketplace. Every year, overweight people diet and lose weight. People with alcohol problems join Alcoholics Anonymous.

In the end, all ideologies are absolute, but it’s only with Christianity that civil government is designed to be limited. It can’t tell you what to believe or force you to believe. Today’s Messianic State is in the business to tell us what to believe and to force us to live in terms of the State’s religious test. To use G.F.W. Hegel’s phrase, “the State is god walking on earth.”

  1. Daniel Dreisbach, “The Constitution’s Forgotten Religion Clause: Reflections on the Article VI Religious Test Ban,” Journal of Church and State 38:2 (Spring 1996), 289. []
  2. See Forrest Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007), 445–449. []
  3. “‘God’ Removed from Notaries’ Oath,” The Kansas City Star (February 18, 1992), 2A. []
  4. Jesse McKinley, “San Francisco’s Mayor Proposes Fee on Sales of Sugary Soft Drinks,” The New York Times (December 18, 2007). []
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