Political candidates love to play “the religion card”

In recent debates between tea party endorsed Senate candidates and their Democratic opponents, faith has emerged as a campaign issue. … Continued

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?

Candidates play the “religion card,” I believe, because they think, and electoral politics does seem to bear this out, that voters will trust a candidate who says she or he believes in God more than a candidate who is not talking about their faith in God all the time. And politics is more about trust than it is about issues. The voter is looking for reasons to believe that a candidate for office can be trusted. Expressions of belief in God seem to send that message.

Voters, beware.

The problem is that religion is the easiest thing in the world to fake. Who can disprove it if you say you believe in God? It’s not like having to reveal your campaign donations, or your previous voting record. Even those with a checkered record on fidelity can claim they have confessed and been forgiven.

I love the following speech from the television show, West Wing. The Republican candidate, Arnold Vinick, is being dogged by the press because he doesn’t go to church. At a press conference where candidate Vinick is announcing an agreement with the Democratic White House on the debt ceiling, Vinick gets asked again about going to church. His response is pure fiction, as no candidate, and certainly no Republican candidate, would dare say such a thing today and hope to be elected. It is, for that reason, enormously instructive. Vinick replies to the question about going to church:

“I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won’t all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes. So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on government, But if you have a question on religion, please go to church.”

But on a more serious note, I think that fervent expressions of religious belief by candidates do not belong in the public square. There is such a temptation to pandering that such expressions are truly unwise–the public actually doesn’t learn very much, and the candidate’s faith becomes politicized. Bad on both counts.

The words of the “Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Jefferson have become very popular with conservative candidates these days, especially those who claim membership in the “Tea Party.” Consider these words of Thomas Jefferson on the fact that one’s religious views, and the religious views of others, are private.

“Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” –Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1813.

“I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.” –Thomas Jefferson to Edward Dowse, 1803.

“Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to God alone. I inquire after no man’s, and trouble none with mine.” –Thomas Jefferson to Miles King, 1814.

This is very good advice from a very experienced politician.

  • LaryPullen

    Dr. Thistlethwaite, I believe you have made several excellent points, as always. I particularly like the West Wing reference. I often asked my students (before the 2008 election) which would be elected president first an African American, a woman, or an atheist. Atheist always came in last. Thanks for your essay.

  • EarthCraft

    I have a lot of faith but some things do challenge the assumption? The edge?I object to this form of questioning! but I do wave my rights?there is automatic forgiveness for confession? since when?Powers violation? My my my, Olympus does take on a different air, on a sunday evening. Very Grandios up those stairs.I refuse to behave!

  • FarnazMansouri2

    I am sooo….tired of the Christian people.

  • mini2

    It would take a TV show to have a ‘Publican talk sense.However, the crucial question is, does the candidate put the Constitution and the laws of the land before any personal beliefs. If the answer is no, the person is not qualified for office.