In recent debates between tea party endorsed Senate candidates and their Democratic opponents, faith has emerged as a campaign issue.
Calling himself “a pro-life Christian” in opening remarks, Kentucky candidate Rand Paul said, “I’m disheartened that my opponent has chosen to attack my religious beliefs,” referring to Jack Conway’s campaign ad that questioned Paul’s beliefs on the bible, faith-based initiatives and ‘Aqua Buddha.’ (For more on ‘Aqua Buddha’ click here.)
In the Delaware debate between Senate candidates, Christine O’Donnell said, “I would argue there are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs,” alluding to a column written by Chris Coons two decades ago which he characterizes as ‘a joke.’
With polls showing that voters rank the economy as a top issue, why are the faith lives of candidates up for debate?
Contrary to the notion that politics and religion don’t mix, they are actually inextricably linked. No matter how hard a society may try to carefully separate the secular state from the Church, questions of religion and faith will continue to assert themselves in our political life, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways.
Our American system of government rightly rejects a religious test for public office. A person’s denomination should not disqualify him or her from being elected.
But that’s not the same as saying that the voters don’t care what their elected representatives believe. They do care, not because there’s a state-endorsed religion, but rather because one’s faith shapes one’s life. As much as politicians may want to say, “This is my personal belief, but it is independent of my public actions,” the commonsense reality is that each person is a single individual with a single conscience. Faith shapes how one evaluates right and wrong, how one handles adversity, how one fights the temptation to do wrong, and how one carries out a public trust.
It is from this conviction that the famous line in the Northwest Ordinance springs: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education should forever be encouraged.”
Faith, ultimately, provides the strongest motive to serve. We don’t call those who hold political office “public servants” for nothing. And when we elect them, it is comforting to know that, whatever model it may be, the engine that fuels that service is strong and functioning well.