From the Archives: Do the Religious Beliefs of US Presidents Matter?

Detail from The Prayer at Valley Forge, Arnold Friberg 1999

(Used with permission from Baptist Bulletin July/Aug. 2012. All rights reserved.)

Do the religious beliefs of U.S. presidents matter? Though the question is not new (Baptists, as well as Protestants and evangelicals in general, wrestled with “the Catholic issue” when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960; Kennedy spoke to allay their fears), American voters appear to be headed toward a 2012 election with unusual religious features. As of this writing, the top-tier choices include a vaguely “Christian” candidate and an indisputably Mormon candidate. The latter appears certain to become the Republican nominee for president. This development has many taking a fresh—and anxiety-tinged—look at what they believe about separation of church and state.

For conservative Christians, the situation is especially uncomfortable. They believe deeply that President Obama’s political philosophy and policies are harming the country and that he must be defeated, yet they find Mitt Romney’s Mormonism disturbing. After all, though the Mormon religion is suffused with old-fashioned American values, it’s a religious newcomer born entirely by reinventing major components of the Christian faith—and that sort of reinventing is a profoundly “unconservative” thing to do to the religion that built Western civilization.

The situation has exposed confusion about the relationship between faith and high office. Left-leaning news outlets frame stories as though “religion in government” were a novel and dangerous idea. (See cbsnews.com.) But many toward the center and right are apparently confused as well. According to an ABC News-Washington Post poll, 66 percent of Americans believe “political leaders should not rely on their religious beliefs in making policy decisions,” suggesting that, in the minds of many, faith and governance should have no relationship at all. Among conservatives, while some occasionally parrot the “separation of faith and politics” rhetoric of liberal secularists, more than a few tend to overstate the role of faith in government. (Take for example, the ABC News article “Rick Santorum Regrets Saying JFK’s Religion Speech Made Him Want to ‘Throw Up.’” See also “My Take” by R. Albert Mohler Jr. and “A More Accurate Reading.”)

How, then, should we view the role of religion in the lives of our civic leaders? More specifically, does the religion of a U.S. president matter? Can Christians, in good conscience, vote for a Mormon?

Three ways religion matters in high office

Some political thinkers have argued that a president’s religion is completely irrelevant, but in at least three ways, a public official’s religion is inseparable from how he or she governs.

1. Ultimate questions

First, religions are belief systems that, among other things, aim to answer ultimate questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is the difference between good and evil, right and wrong? Religions also tend to strongly influence our answers to two other questions: What is the nature and purpose of society, and what is the role of government in people’s lives?

If public officials, including presidents, do not have firm answers to these questions, they end up governing randomly. If they do have firm answers, those answers are, by their very nature, features of the leader’s religion—whether it’s some form of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Islam, or secular humanism.

As the source of his moral and ethical compass as well as his basic political philosophy, a leader’s religion has enormous importance. A leader’s beliefs in these areas are religious beliefs that he or she cannot (and should not) avoid “relying on.” Media outlets often assume that it is possible to exclude religion from these questions and that they may be answered in some religiously neutral way through science. But secularized science can offer no answers to the foundational questions of human nature, social ethics, and life’s meaning. To the degree any science answers these questions, it is no longer secular.

2. Marriage and family

Second, since a public official’s religion tells him the nature and purpose of society, his faith also shapes his view of society’s most basic institutions: the family and marriage. Conservative Christians believe these institutions have been under attack in American society for at least half a century and that this attack has continually intensified over the last decade. But even many moderates, liberals, and “progressives” agree with conservatives on one point: our society is at a crossroads, and many wish to transform the basic institutions of marriage and family. A president’s religion strongly influences what course he believes our society should take in this conflict.

3. The church-state relationship

Third, a presidential candidate’s religion matters to the degree that it teaches a specific view of the relationship between church and state. If his faith has a strong tradition of blurring the line between the authority of its religious institutions and the authority of government institutions, that blurring constitutes a fundamental incompatibility with high office in our system. On the other hand, if the candidate’s religion has a tradition of institutional separation between church bodies and state, his religion is not only compatible with the presidency but strengthens the independence of the office.

Sizing up the options

If a president’s religion matters in these three ways, how do evangelical Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Mormonism stack up?

Viewed from a high altitude, evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism share very similar views of human nature, the basic virtues and vices, morality, ethics, and marriage and family. This is especially the case if we filter the ideas we’re considering down to those that are most influential in how a leader conducts himself and makes governing decisions.

Viewed from the same perspective and employing the same filters, how does Mormonism compare? Pretty well, actually. Though Mormonism denies the deity of Christ and proclaims a false gospel—and is, therefore, a false religion—it affirms, along with several other religions, a high ethical and moral code and a high (extremely high) view of marriage and the family (see Article 13 of the Mormon Articles of Faith).

As an influence on how a leader governs, Mormonism’s view of human nature may be slightly more problematic. Since Mormonism holds that human beings and God are fundamentally the same kind of being and that humans are born free of any corruption or limitations of the original sin, it’s fair to characterize the Mormon view of human nature as a bit rosy! In that respect it has more in common with the Protestant, evangelical, and secular left than it does with conservative evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. The latter two share a far humbler and lower view of fallen human nature. Historically that view of human nature has informed how leaders see the restraining influence of law and government.

What about the separation of church and state then? While Roman Catholicism has a famously spotty record in this area, most of that record exists in the distant past. (For more on the Roman Catholic view of church and state, the Catholic Encyclopedia article “State and Church.” The Roman Church’s modern attitude seems to be more of the sort expressed here: “Pope urges Pakistan to repeal anti-blasphemy law.” Earnest Pickering’s 1960 article is dated but also worth reading: “Should America Elect A Roman Catholic President?”) Even in England, where the official Anglican relationship with affairs of state is far more integrated than we would accept in the U.S., basic boundaries are honored—especially over the last century or so. Evangelicalism, on the other hand, has always emphasized strong ideological influence on government while avoiding institutional entanglement.

What is Mormonism’s view of the church-state relationship? Breeches of proper church-state separation almost certainly occurred in the early years in Utah. However, the Mormon faith includes a high regard for government and law in the 12th of its 13 Articles of Faith. Though it does not use “separation of church and state” language, its emphasis is clear: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” In addition, the 11th article affirms the right of all men to “worship how, where, or what they may.” Though it’s true that Mormons believe in a literal restoration of the “10 tribes” of Israel on the American continent, they apparently see this as occurring after Christ returns to reign. (See www.lds.org and mormonbeliefs.org.)

If blogs are any indication, many rank-and-file Mormons do not believe in the separation of church and state (and using the same evidence, many Baptists don’t either!). But mainstream Mormon doctrine favors separate institutional spheres. In the case of Mitt Romney in particular, his record as the governor of Massachusetts reveals no inclination to involve the Mormon Church in the affairs of the state.

Two ways religion does not matter in high office

Though a president’s religion is important in several ways, in at least two ways it is not.

1. Character

Scripture is clear that a leader’s claim to believer status is no guarantee of good character. King Saul claimed to be a worshiper of the God of Israel, and even received “another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9). Nonetheless, Saul proved to be a man of weak character and poor judgment—once even commanding that his own son be executed for violating an impulsive and foolish royal directive (1 Samuel 14:43, 44).

In the New Testament, the Pharisees, chief priests, and scribes declared their devotion to God passionately and publicly—and we know what kind of rulers they were. (Matthew 23 provides a vivid summary).

We might be tempted to think that if a candidate makes a credible claim to Christian faith, he must be a better man than any unbeliever. After all, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But the “Christian equals better character” view is flawed in two ways. First, it’s easy to falsely profess Christian faith, and even people who seem devout can be frauds (Matthew 7:22, 23). Second, though every true believer is indeed a new creation, the transformation of his character varies widely. Depending on how much exposure someone has had to the gracious influences of Christian parenting and Christian ways of thinking, two people who come to Christ may begin their journey of growth and change at very different starting points. God’s “good work” (Philippians 1:6) also follows unique sequence and rate of change in each life. The consequence is that some unbelievers have more Christian principles influencing their character and values than some believers.

Should we conclude that a leader’s faith has no bearing at all on his character? Surely not. What we may conclude is that Christian influence on character is independent of official religious identity. A leader may claim the faith but be influenced little by it. He may not claim the faith and yet be influenced a great deal by it.

In addition, many of the basic principles and values that comprise Christian character and attitudes are also promoted by other religions. Just about every major faith claims the Golden Rule. Nearly all of them teach honesty, diligence, and some idea of justice. And who doesn’t believe in compassion? God’s common grace (Matthew 5:45) is such that He not only rains water on the just and the unjust, He sprinkles the qualities of good character in some unlikely places as well.

2. Competence

Most people don’t rank Christian faith at the top of the list of qualifications for a good heart surgeon. They intuitively understand that if you have a choice between an atheist with a hundred successful surgeries and a high school sophomore who loves the Lord, but has only dissected a frog, the atheist is the hands-down winner.

But when faced with a choice for high office, many seem to lack that intuitive grasp of the situation. They assume that a Christian candidate is better than a non-Christian one regardless of actual skill level. The confusion on this point is probably due partly to a failure of the imagination. Because most voters have never held any kind of office—or served in a leadership role of any kind—it’s easy for them to think that no special skills are involved. You just have to want to do it. With that error as a starting point, many naively favor any candidate who shares their beliefs, even preferring novices and outsiders over leaders who have demonstrated the skills of statecraft.

In most cases a candidate’s religion has little relationship to his competence in performing the duties of office.

Conclusion

Does a public official’s religion matter? Yes and no. On one hand, a political leader’s actual religious beliefs are far more important than the religion he officially claims—and these beliefs do directly influence the goals he pursues in office as well as the way he conducts that pursuit. On the other hand, we cannot confidently rely on a leader’s religious identity as an indicator of his character and competence.

We should vote with the understanding that every candidate is religious (even if he styles himself an atheist or an agnostic) and with the understanding that his religious convictions do not necessarily match those of the religious identity he claims. For these reasons and others, we should evaluate candidates by looking for evidence of good character, a high level of leadership competence, and understanding of human nature, morality, society, and government that harmonize well with our Christian convictions.

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There are 4 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

One way in which a President's religion matters a lot is in his adherence, or lack thereof, to Sola Scriptura.  Think about it a minute; all of our Supreme Court justices are from religious traditions (Judiasm, Catholicism) that do not hold to Sola Scriptura, but rather to more or less Scripture plus tradition.  In this tradition, a tremendous amount of weight is placed on tradition and stare decisis.  However, someone who really holds to Sola Scriptura is going to respond to many court cases these days with a comment like "exactly what part of 'Congress shall make no law' does the Court not understand?", or "Exactly what part of 'Shall not be infringed' is beyond the Court's ability to comprehend?"

I would contend that our current courts are holding a high view of stare decisis ("let the decision stand") and therefore a low view of the Constitution--and I would further suggest that this high view of precedent is one big reason we're not seeing many "fundagelical" candidates for judgeships.  Our temperament simply ought to reject the current legal mood.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The correlation between belief in a specific protestant doctrine and belief in a particular judicial method is a bit strained.

There is certainly no guarantee that a President who believes in sola scriptura would appoint a justice who also does, or that a justice who holds to sola scriptura would take a dimmer view of stare decisis.

In any case, it wouldn't be appropriate in our nation to hold either Presidents or Justices to a specific religious test. Ideally, would believe sola be better than not? Other things being equal, certainly. But it's better to have a wise ruler who is, say, Buddhist, than a fool who happens to be Protestant and Reformed. So the skill and character set for this role is complex and not primarily religious.

As for Justices... stare decisis has more to do with stability and how cases are framed than anything else. In a criminal court, we start out with a specific conscious bias: the defendant is innocent until the evidence shows he is not. Similarly, in stare decisis--as I understand it (not a lawyer)--the justice starts with the attitude "status quo should continue unless evidence shows it should not."

 

Bert Perry's picture

I would agree that we have a dearth of information--the only halfway truly evangelical Presidents we've had would be Carter and Bush, and both have clear indications of rather moderate theology and being more comfortable among the liberals--but I would suggest that we could extrapolate from what we have had.  Reagan and both Bushes were theologically moderate in my view, and generally appointed justices that adhered more strictly to the text of the Constitution; Clinton and Obama are theologically liberal (I'd suggest they're really both agnostic from their behavior), and they've been brutal to the rule of law, to put it mildly.  

Now we may never get a President, or even a strong minority in the Senate, that holds strongly to Sola Scriptura and applies that to appointing justices, but I'd argue that if we did, or to the extent that we do, we will get a number of people who will break strongly with our current judicial "magisterium".

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It has more to do with conservatism than theology, though it's hard to arrive at conservatism without a bit of theology. (Charles Krauthammer seems to manage it... but I haven't read enough of him yet to know what's really making him tick. I suspect he has absorbed elements of Christian worldview, atheist or not.)

Best I can tell, George W. is pretty much a mainstream evangelical and not generally inclined to look at things through any kind of serious theological grid. I'm not aware of any President who was wired that way, really.... until you get back as far as John Adams, maybe?

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