December 21, 2007 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Politics, God and Blue Devils

As one national search heats up, another has just concluded. With the first primaries taking place in January, Republicans and Democrats are trying to choose a nominee for president. With the college football recruiting deadline also in January, Duke University has just hired a new head football coach. Surprisingly, the focus of the presidential campaign has been dominated lately by religion. Less surprisingly, the focus among Duke sports fans has been basketball. The spotlight on presidential candidates' faith seems to have hit a constitutional nerve among some commentators. Article VI of the Constitution prohibits a religious test for office, they note, implying that it's unconstitutional for citizens to vote for a candidate on this basis.

This particular complaint is misguided. In America, citizens are free to vote for a candidate based on whatever criteria they choose, be it hairstyle, taste in music, foreign policy or religion. What is prohibited is legally preventing someone from serving in office because of their faith. Article VI of the Constitution places limits not on voters, but on the federal government -- not on what issues citizens should care about, but on specific qualifications for serving in office. Over the years, the fact that Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Quakers, Unitarians, and others have thrown their hat in the ring is testimony that Article VI is working.

As a more practical matter, though, the national discussion about candidates and religion leaves a lot to be desired. To shed some light on how so, consider how a hypothetical interview might have gone last week in the Duke Athletic Office.

Suppose one of the coaches considered for the head football position, in addition to possessing prior football experience, had once coached basketball, and suppose the focus of his interview centered on that fact. It would be fair for people to have wondered how his involvement in basketball is relevant to coaching football. But it would be silly for someone to have asserted that it is impermissible for Duke fans or sports writers to ask about his basketball background. The issue has more to do with how helpful such questions are to making a wise hiring decision.

For example, asking about specific basketball drills or the details of certain preferred plays would probably not produce the most fruitful information for evaluating his ability to coach football. Would knowing that a coach favors the pick-and-roll or the back-door pass somehow better qualify him to generate more touchdowns? Football has its own rules and requires, to some degree, different kinds of skills and strategies for success. Perhaps this is the kind of disconnect that many sense when the public conversation about presidential candidates' faith dwells on the details of one's prayer life or the nuances of one's doctrine. Voters rightly wonder how such information helps them select the best candidate for the office of president.

And yet basketball and football are not so different as to conclude that coaching one is completely irrelevant to coaching the other. Some aspects of leading a team on the hardwood are applicable on the gridiron. For instance, has this particular coach proven to be more offensive-minded or defensive-minded? Has he built teams around a superstar or pursued a more balanced team approach? Is he successful in unifying teammates to work together? How heavily does he rely on assistant coaches? Is he good at recruiting? All of these questions would be appropriate and helpful concerning a potential football coach's prior experience in basketball. A good interview would take such points into consideration, while nevertheless centering the main conversation on football.

Areas of overlap likewise exist between presidential candidates' religious commitments and their ability to serve in political office. After all, churches are no strangers to issues of membership, leadership, authority, budgets, and the struggle for consensus -- and politics, at its root, is about making moral judgments. A robust national conversation would include room for exploring how religious commitments shape a candidate's leadership ability and policy stances. Yet it would not allow that discussion to overshadow the many other factors that contribute to an effective presidency.

Contrary to the question asked during the recent YouTube Republican debate, knowing what someone believes about the Bible does not "tell us everything we need to know" about that person as a candidate for president. Questions about piety and doctrine do not violate the Constitution's prohibition of a religious test for office, but they may be questions best left on the bench. The key is to understand those areas where religious commitments are most likely to influence an individual's capacity to fulfill the responsibilities of political leadership, and to focus the conversation there.

Selecting leaders is vitally important, which means we need to be wise and discerning in how we conduct our interviews. To put a twist on one writer, "all questions are permissible, but not all questions are helpful." America would benefit from focusing on the latter kind of questions.

And with only four football wins over the past four seasons, Duke fans are hoping that the right questions were asked in that selection process as well!

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil. Research Fellow
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

First appeared in National Review Online