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?
Faith has played an interesting, and different role in this election cycle compared with years past. Two years ago during the lead-up to the 2008 election, it appeared that everyone was running for “Pastor-in-chief” instead of “Commander-in-chief.” (Interfaith Alliance made a humorous video to highlight that trend.) The 2010 campaign season has been something completely different; it has been characterized by extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric and efforts to delegitimize any faith not held by the candidate speaking or writing. I thought 2008 was bad, but in some ways, the role of religion this year is much more destructive to the fabric of our democracy.
Religion should never be used as a political tool. And politicians should certainly not seek to disenfranchise entire segments of the population based on faith. Campaigns should be about policies, about the issues that affect how a candidate would govern and would shape the lives of his or her constituents. A candidate speaking about his or her faith in a way that illuminates who he or she is as a person is perfectly acceptable; the line is crossed, however, when the candidate implies that he or she deserves your vote because of his or her faith.
Watching candidates politicize the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero has been saddening. Hearing a candidate refer to his opponent as “Taliban Dan” was inane. Seeing a candidate produce an ad in which the terms “Muslim” and “terrorist” are used interchangeably was disturbing.
Equally distasteful has been candidates’ attacks on each other’s faith. Kentucky Democratic Senatorial nominee Jack Conway’s recent advertisement referring to his opponent, Dr. Rand Paul, as a former “member of a secret society that called the holy Bible a hoax that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ,” was inflammatory and inappropriate. Our nation was built upon the freedom for all people of all faiths to be equal, with none favored over the other. Conway’s language made it appear that he sought to benefit from the often divisive role religion can play during elections, rather than focusing on legitimate policy issues. And if his intent was to criticize Dr. Paul’s seemingly demeaning actions toward Christianity in the past, he certainly went about it the wrong way. Attacking an opponent’s personal beliefs about religion – or worse yet, mere rumors heard about these beliefs – does nothing to help constituents make an educated decision about who will best represent them politically.
Commenting on a candidate’s personal religious beliefs, necessitating a rapid response from the opposing side which also employs faith-based language has created a vicious cycle in electioneering. In the case of Kentucky’s politics, the prominence of religion in the political discourse was only exacerbated when Dr. Paul inevitably felt forced to respond to Conway’s accusations. At an October 17 debate, Dr. Paul reminded voters that he considers himself a “pro-life Christian” who, as he stated in an advertisement of his own, “keeps Christ in his heart.” If Dr. Paul had sought to move attention away from religious faith and toward policy issues that really matter to voters, he could have simply said that his faith is a personal matter. Instead, he implied that his Christian identity was a reason to support his candidacy. Though less aggressive, such language is no better than Conway’s.
A similar back-and-forth happened in Delaware. Republican Senatorial nominee Christine O’Donnell voiced frustration when her early flirtation with witchcraft was publicly aired, but then she proceeded to claim publicly that her own Catholicism was somehow better than “Marxist beliefs” her opponent Democratic nominee Chris Coons had written about as a college student. This type of behavior is hypocritical and does nothing to advance the conversation on legitimate political issues voters really need to know about.
I conclude by saying that yes, voters have every right to know the role a candidate’s faith will play in creating public policy. But the Constitution clearly prohibits using religious convictions as a qualification for public office. As Article Six states, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” More important than a candidate’s personal religious beliefs is the question of whether candidates will protect our religious freedoms and respect the boundaries between religion and government, and how they will balance the principles of their faith with their pledge to defend the Constitution.
Political campaigns should be about presenting real solutions to real problems by demonstrating responsible statesmanship, not engaging in a competition over whose religious values are best. Such debate does nothing to illuminate those solutions and only leaves voters wondering if many of the people running for office know enough about leadership, respect and the true art of politics to merit their vote.