Ken Starr Tries to Make a Decent Call

09 Jan

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


5 responses to “Ken Starr Tries to Make a Decent Call

  1. Spanish Inquisitor

    January 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    It’s time to renew The Exterminator/Chaplain candidacy for 2012.

    • the chaplain

      January 9, 2012 at 8:17 pm

      Yeah- I have the bumper stickers around here somewhere…

  2. PhillyChief

    January 10, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Conservatives have to sell this magic underwear wearing candidate, so they’ll say or do anything, even speaking -gasp- the truth.

    Should things turn, some may well speak of the virtues of ass play and a good froth.

  3. Kiwichap

    January 11, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    As viewed from a fairly staunchly secular democracy, all the faith-talk that seems to be an integral part of American politics is quite bewildering. Of course it’s not unusual for New Zealand’s parliamentarians to be ‘people of faith’ and we do even have the odd elected member for whom faith is a platform plank but it is highly unusual for anyone in NZ politics to make the sort of public statements about their confessional allegiances that are clearly de rigueur in the US. In fact, if a candidate were to twitter on about “God’s plan for the country” in the way that US politicos always seem to, it would kill his campaign stone dead; religion here is mostly a private matter and we’re pretty suspicious of anyone who would publicly suggest that prayer and policy-making are good bed-fellows. Our current Prime Minister is an atheist of Jewish descent and his three-term predecessor was as atheist woman and both enjoy(ed) widespread public approval and popularity. My guess is that we won’t see a similar situation is the US in my lifetime.

    I think that America, flawed as it may be, is the world’s most significant bastion of democratic and ‘enlightenment’ values if only by dint of its sheer economic and military might and I can tell you that plenty of people in ‘minnow democracies’ absolutely dread the theocracy-by-stealth tendencies that we see playing in your domestic politics. So, I’ve got to say that whether or not Mr Starr ‘should have to’ write such an article, I’m very pleased that he has; the religious freedoms enshrined in your constitution are absolutely inspirational and it’s a refreshing change to see a Republican standing up for them rather than walking all over them.

    • the chaplain

      January 12, 2012 at 10:34 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. As you note, the theocracy-by-stealth (which is getting less stealthy every year) tendency in the USA is disturbing. I agree that I’m pleased that Starr wrote this piece. Since he’s a believer, he naturally takes a somewhat different tack than I would (largely because he’s primarily addressing believers, not my usual audience), but it seems that he and I generally agree about this issue.


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