I was pleasantly surprised when I came across this article, written by Baylor University president Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr), in the Washington Post today. When I read the article’s title, Can I Vote for a Mormon? I steeled myself to read some religious right wingnuttery about Jesus Candidates and the like. Instead I read things like this:
I strongly encourage Americans who would ask this question of themselves to consider and weigh thoughtfully our nation’s constitutional traditions….
In fashioning this remarkably enduring document, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia made it absolutely clear that no religious test should ever be imposed to hold office.
As I read on, I found this:
According to the American political tradition, there are essential questions by which all office seekers are qualified, regardless of their faith journey or history. The first is: Does the candidate subscribe completely to our constitutional structure, including freedom of conscience for persons of all faiths — or no faith? A second question for the thoughtful voter is related to and flows from the first: Will the candidate subscribe, without any “mental hesitation or purpose of evasion,” to the oath to protect and defend America’s Constitution? If the answers to those closely connected questions are yes, then voters should proceed to cast their ballot on the basis of the candidate’s qualifications, platform and policy positions — not the candidate’s membership (or lack thereof) in a particular faith community.
Did you catch that last bit? A candidate’s membership – or lack thereof – in a faith community is not nearly as important a qualification for public office as that candidate’s willingness to uphold the Constitution and respect citizens’ rights to freedom of conscience.
And then I read a bit further and found this:
In fact, a number of great presidents have come to the White House without membership in any faith community. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and was vigorously attacked for his religious views (or lack thereof). Abraham Lincoln, as a matter of conscience, refused to join any church….
More recently, the great cultural chasm between Catholics and Protestants was politically overcome with the election of John F. Kennedy. Similarly, then-Vice President Al Gore’s choice of Sen. Joe Lieberman, a practicing Jew, as his running mate in 2000 signaled the welcoming openness of America’s democratic experience to individuals who did not share the Christian faith….
…the litmus for our elected leaders must not be the church they attend but the Constitution they defend.
Shortly after this passage, Starr concluded his article with this advice:
Life experience, personal qualities and policy views are the pivotal points to guide Americans as they go to the polls in 2012.
While there’s much I like about Starr’s article, I have a significant problem with it. Starr’s approach would work well in an open-minded marketplace of political ideas. Sad to say, it’s been a very long time since the USA provided such a marketplace (if it ever did). The fact that Starr felt compelled to answer the question posed in his title is testament to that sad reality. The fact is, in today’s American political climate, many candidates explicitly connect their policies to their religious beliefs. When someone like Rick Santorum, to take just one example, promotes policy positions on such issues as contraception, abortion and gay rights, and supports those beliefs by citing his religious beliefs, I have little choice but to consider how incompatible his beliefs, as well as his policies, are with my policy positions and nonbelief. It is the candidates themselves who compel me to apply religious litmus tests to both their policies and their beliefs. As long as they keep wearing their religions on their sleeves and using their beliefs to try to score votes, I’ll have no choice but to take their religious professions, as well as their policy statements, into consideration when I cast my votes. And I assure you, religiously extreme candidates will have great difficulty gaining any support from me.
– the chaplain