The 2008 presidential season is not only starting earlier than any in U.S. history; it is also setting a new record for the raising of issues that are largely, if not purely, theological.
Recently on NBC's Meet the Press, former North Carolina senator John Edwards was asked, "Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?" On June 4, 2007, CNN's Paula Zahn asked the same question of New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Connecticut senator Chris Dodd. Neither was asked whether they believed the practice or proclivity in question was wrong, or immoral. At least by certain standards, wrongness and immorality might be defined by means other than religion. But to ask a politician about sin is to deliberately interject theology into civic conversation.
Sin, according to the Bible, is the transgression of the law of God ( John 3:4). How to define God's law, as well as deviation from it, is a purely theological question. To ask a seminary or pastoral candidate such a question is one thing. But should a political candidate, in a country whose Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, be asked such questions in a strictly political context?
Also on June 4, 2007, Senator Edwards was asked by CNN's Soledad O'Brien what was the biggest sin he had ever committed. I couldn't help thinking how even I, as a pastor, have never been asked such a question! Maybe Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil" also gives a model for political rectitude!
In their April 2007 debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the Republican candidates for president were asked if they believed in evolution. I noted with interest that the question was not whether creationism as well as evolution should be taught in the public schools—a divisive political issue in much of the country just now. Rather, the issue was whether the candidates personally believed in the theory of evolution. The answer given by Senator John McCain, affirming his belief in evolution, yet declaring his sense of God's presence while hiking the Grand Canyon, likewise raised the issue of whether politicians now feel constrained to define what God's role may or may not have been in the process of natural origins.
In a later debate, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer whether he believed the earth was created in six literal days, 6,000 years ago. As in the previous exchange, the question was not what public policy should be toward the teaching of the origin of life, but rather, what a candidate for public office believes regarding biblical interpretation and chronology.
Also noteworthy in the April Republican debate was a question to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as to whether he agreed with the Catholic bishops excluding certain politicians from Communion. Quite rightly, Romney replied that such a decision belonged solely in the hands of the bishops, representing as they do a private institution. But Romney's regard for such privacy didn't seem to extend to his relationship with his own wife. On the evening of May 13, 2007, when interviewed by CBS's 60 Minutes, Romney was asked whether he and his wife had had premarital sex—a question many would consider much more private than a church's policies regarding a public ceremony like Communion. But without hesitation, Romney answered the question, assuring all that he and his wife had indeed been chaste before marriage.
The theological quotient was even more pronounced in the August 19, 2007, debate among the Democratic presidential candidates at Drake University in Iowa. One online viewer asked the candidates to "define their belief in a personal God," and also asked their understanding of the power of prayer, whether it can prevent natural and other disasters. All but one of the candidates—former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska—proceeded to affirm the importance of God and prayer in their lives, and the extent to which they believed such power could influence personal or other events in the world.
Appropriately, in this writer's view, CNN's Paula Zahn asked on her own show the evening of May 14, 2007, whether we will soon hear candidates being asked whether they believe in such doctrines as the immaculate conception. Just how far, Zahn asked, is theology going to be permitted to define American politics? On the following hour that same night, Sojourners editor Jim Wallis wondered aloud whether future Congresses might find themselves engrossed in exegetical debates over the book of Leviticus.
If the early skirmishes are any clue, the 2008 election could well chart the extent to which an unofficial theological standard will henceforth be permitted to measure the beliefs of those seeking political office in the United States.
The words of the U.S. Constitution on this subject are very clear. Article VI, clause 3 declares:
"No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification for any Office or public Trust under the United States."
"Required," of course, seems in context to refer to civil law codifying religious standards for political candidates. Enactments of this sort are less the focus of this article than the unofficial expectations of the public. Whatever the Constitution or civil legislation might say, will the questions of voters or the media end up establishing a de facto religious test for public office?
A recent Time magazine article explored this issue with the following questions: "What does the Constitution mean when it says there should be no religion test for office? It plainly means that a candidate can't be barred from running because he or she happens to be a Quaker or a Buddhist or a Pentecostal. But Mitt Romney's candidacy raises a broader issue: Is the substance of private beliefs off-limits? You can ask if a candidate believes in school vouchers and vote for someone else if you disagree with the answer. But can you ask if he believes that the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Mo., as the Mormon founder taught, and vote against him on the grounds of that answer?"1
And in the present writer's view, the best answer Mitt Romney could have given to the question regarding his and his wife's premarital chastity would have been, "None of your business. That is between me, my wife, and God." Sadly, such regard for personal privacy has practically disappeared from the vocabulary of public servants and political aspirants these days.
Where Will It End?
One is led to wonder just how far this intrusion of theological and private personal issues into the political arena is likely to go. Is a candidate's sexual history, before and after marriage, fair game for prying and probing, subject to all the sleuthing and attempted verification made necessary by rumor and contrived tales? Will candidates feel themselves constrained to answer whether they believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ, or His bodily resurrection? Will we one day hear presidential candidates arguing over different beliefs regarding the inspiration and authority of the Bible? Will mainstream public opinion, despite the Constitution, craft for itself an unwritten code of moral and religious orthodoxy for those seeking political office?
As a conservative Christian pastor who is both a biblical creationist and a biblical moralist, I feel deeply the pain of those who find their faith and convictions battered constantly by societal trends and intellectual scorn. But I must nevertheless remind myself that the same God who declared amid Sinai's thunder, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14), also declared in the person of His Son Jesus Christ, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). It does us well to remember that the latter statement, made to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, was offered in answer to Pilate's question regarding the charge that Jesus sought to establish an earthly kingdom (John 18:33; Luke 23:2, 3). This was all that mattered to Pilate, as a Roman official, in this particular exchange. Theological disputes between Jesus and the Jewish authorities were no concern of Pilate's. But if Jesus intended to establish His principles through the acquisition and use of civil power, it would indeed be a matter of which the Romans would take note.
How Faith Informs Politics
When candidates are asked the extent to which their faith informs, or will inform, their judgment as political leaders, we need to stop and consider the most basic purpose of civil government.
Government exists for the purpose of making and enforcing laws. The whole notion of governing requires the existence of laws. Laws, by their very nature, compel the compliance of citizens, as is recognized by all—from traffic speeders to tax evaders—who are caught violating such laws. This compulsion invariably involves the infliction of penalties on lawbreakers, without which the law has no meaning.
When, therefore, a politician is asked how his or her religion will inform judgments made while in office, the effect of such faith on the politician's personal conduct—marital fidelity, personal finances, etc.—is not the real issue. Rather, the issue is whether such faith will influence the laws that one, as a political leader, is responsible for enacting or rendering judgment upon. This inevitably raises the issue of whether such a one will use civil power to force the convictions of one's faith on the public, many of whom do not share that faith. What this means, in simple terms, is that to speak of faith "informing" politics is to speak of the extent to which faith will be enforced on society—those of all faiths and of none—through civil law.
The argument will be raised, of course, that laws against murder, theft, rape, perjury, racial injustice, and other practices can also be informed by faith. And certainly this is true. But laws that prevent the infliction of physical harm on people or their property against their will, lie on a different plane from those which affect consentual, abstract convictions or choices. The first set of laws are the proper domain of civil government, whether or not faith informs such decisions. All ideas, of course, have power, and the decision of America's founders to protect free speech, a free press, and the free exercise of religion represented a choice by the state not to restrain the power, influence, and acceptance of such ideas. If and when such ideas result in physically destructive conduct directed at others or their possessions, that is one thing. But protecting the unfettered commerce of ideas or consentual practices is what American constitutional liberty is all about.
Following the 2004 presidential election, C-SPAN hosted a discussion that included conservative Christian writer Nancy Pearcy, a strong advocate of the Religious Right and its religio-political agenda. Pearcy spoke at length of the "disconnect" between the personal convictions and policy statements of candidates who, like John Kerry and Rudy Giuliani, oppose abortion personally while refusing to codify such opposition through civil law. Such thinking was tarred by Pearcy as intellectual schizophrenia, adding further to the perception of "flip-flopping" hung on Senator Kerry during the 2004 campaign. The notion was clearly conveyed that if a candidate's personal convictions are genuine, they would indeed be part of such a one's political agenda.
I can't think of many ideas more dangerous, and absurd, than this one. If I, as a Seventh-day Adventist, held public office, should my convictions on the sacredness of the seventh-day Sabbath be viewed as phony if I refused to sponsor legislation that closed all businesses on Saturday? Is my belief in orthodox Adventist doctrine insincere because I refuse to enact such teachings through civil law? Are convictions genuine only if one seeks to force them on others? What Pearcy dismisses as some strange "disconnect" is in fact the guarantor of liberty—the wall of separation between the "garden of the church" and the "wilderness of the world," of which Roger Williams spoke so long ago.2 Without this wall, we are back in medieval Europe and Puritan New England.
Where the Buck Stops
In the end, politicians can't stop voters or the media from asking whatever questions they wish. But they can draw the line, rebuilding the wall between church and state, by simply refusing to answer certain questions. It is they who need to steadfastly refrain from addressing certain issues, declaring them off-limits for political conversation. This is the only place, in a society of free speech and a free press, where the buck must stop.
Kevin D. Paulsen, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and editor, lives and emotes in New York, New York.
1 Nancy Gibbs, "The Religion Test," Time, May 21, 2007, p. 40.
2 Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment (New York: McMillan Publishing Co., 1986), p. 184.
Author: Kevin D. Paulson
Kevin Paulson is a much-published author, editor, and minister of religion. He writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.