December 18, 2007
By Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
Out on the presidential campaign trail this year, candidates and
commentators have had plenty to say about religion. Unfortunately,
the conversation leaves a lot to be desired.
Sometimes the focus is misguided. In June, for example, the top
three Democratic candidates participated in a televised forum on
faith and national politics. The discussion focused on their
personal piety - how often they pray, what they pray for and how
faith has helped them through difficult times. John Edwards was
even asked to name his biggest sin.
Other times, the topic is given short shrift. During the recent
YouTube Republican debate, candidates had all of 60 seconds to
explain whether they believe every word of the Bible.
Faith cries out for a more robust and fruitful conversation.
Religion continues to play an important role in American life and
politics, and it deserves serious and discerning discussion. Some
questions about a candidate's faith are more appropriate and
relevant than others to presidential responsibilities.
The more the candidates, the media and all Americans understand
and exercise such discernment, the more likely we will be to
achieve the Founders' vision for faith that informs and invigorates
The most important consideration in discussing a candidate's
faith is how it affects the ability to exercise a president's
constitutional duties. How do the candidate's beliefs reconcile
with acting as commander in chief of the U.S. military? How would
they influence appointments of Supreme Court justices and foreign
ambassadors? How about administering federal programs at odds with
their personal beliefs, such as family planning?
In the 2000 election, for instance, vice presidential candidate
Joe Lieberman was asked whether his Jewish faith would influence
his foreign policy stance toward Israel. Similar concerns were
raised about Pat Robertson's presidential bid in 1988, including
questions about whether his Cabinet would be only filled with
A second area of appropriate focus concerns the relationship
between religious and political authority and identity. Americans
would benefit from learning how a candidate's identity as a
Baptist, a Roman Catholic, a Mormon or a Jew relates to his or her
identity as an American. It also is significant how candidates see
their religious authorities relating to the authority of the
Constitution, which a president must pledge to uphold and defend.
What would a candidate do if the two authorities were to
This issue was at center stage concerning the role of papal
authority in John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith. Similar
concerns were raised about whether George W. Bush would be unduly
influenced by evangelical leaders like Billy Graham - and they're
now being asked of Mitt Romney concerning his church
Third, a healthier discourse would emphasize the ways in which
faith shapes the candidates' thinking about fundamental political
questions and informs their policy views. It's appropriate to ask
candidates how their religious convictions shape their
understanding of how the federal government should relate to
institutions like families, churches and schools. It's also
relevant to understand how they bring their faith to bear on issues
such as immigration, marriage and health care. Candidates should be
able to explain how they view the root causes of social problems or
prioritize issues on the national agenda differently because of
Fourth, religious faith can be important as a source and shaper
of a candidate's character. Hearing candidates talk about their
faith might therefore help solidify perceptions of their moral
integrity and ability to endure the inevitable strain of the
Knowing the personal attitudes and religious practices of
candidates also can help voters to identify with them. But while
questions about a candidate's prayer life and church attendance
might enable some voters to see a significant aspect of their own
lives reflected in their potential representatives, the value of
such questions is limited for discerning national leadership
potential. Politicians can testify to their own piety, but that's
no guarantee they will act with integrity, speak honestly and avoid
scandal once elected.
Religion's role in sustaining freedom, moral discernment and a
healthy social order underscores the need for a serious
conversation about faith in national politics. The current
sound-bite debates, however, don't allow the kind of treatment
these complex questions deserve. A more robust conversation would
focus less on the self-professed piety of candidates and more on
how their faith would influence their ability to serve as
president. That's the kind of conversation in which the Founders
could - and did - engage.
Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon fellow in Religion and
a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First appeared in The Washington Times under the title “Faith on the Hustings”
Out on the presidential campaign trail this year, candidates and commentators have had plenty to say about religion. Unfortunately, the conversation leaves a lot to be desired.
Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
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