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?
Politics is like mud wrestling. Everyone and everything ends up spattered. Perhaps it has always been this way. Certainly it is better that we spatter mud than spatter blood. But politics dirties everything it touches. That includes faith.
So now attacks based on supposed issues related to religious faith have surfaced in the Kentucky and Delaware Senate races. It is not surprising that the religion-based attacks in these recent races have come from candidates who are both trailing. Politicians hate to lose, and the closer they get to Election Day the more likely they are to grab for anything they can reach.
There are no official religious tests for public office in the United States. It might help to see in print what the Constitution says about this. It is found in 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.”
The Framers were clear that the leaders of every branch of every level of government were to be bound only by their oath to support the Constitution of the United States. This is the sacred text to which government officials pledge fealty in this country.
Many factors inform how political candidates and government officials will exercise their responsibilities. The candidates’ worldviews, religious and moral beliefs, personal character, socioeconomic status and context, financial supporters, friendship patterns, policy perspectives, educational backgrounds, life experiences, and family situations are among the factors that shape how they will exercise their responsibilities. Certainly the well-informed voter will broadly consider everything that is known about the candidates when making their decisions.
This means that it is not entirely irrelevant what might be known about a candidate’s religious beliefs. But trying to smack a candidate around on the basis of their religion is degrading to our political process, subtly undermining of our Constitution’s religious test clause, and classless. The candidate who attempts such smears loses far more than they gain in my eyes, and I speak precisely as an evangelical Christian.