Religious Tests

At the Prospect today, Paul Waldman has a mildly controversial post arguing that the religious views of presidential candidates are worth knowing to the extent they themselves claim such views are important to their approach to politics and government:

Of course we don’t want presidential campaigns to turn into theological debates. But we should understand all the ideas that they claim guide them, whether they come from the New Testament or The Wealth of Nations or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If, for instance, you sincerely think that only people who believe in your god are saved while every other human who has ever lived or will ever live is doomed to an eternity of well-deserved suffering and pain, then that’s something voters should know, because it could well affect the decisions you make as president. And saying, “Well, that’s above my pay grade, ha ha” when you get asked about that particular belief is a cop-out.

This is a topic that Damon Linker (disclosure: he’s my editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press) addressed in an entire book, and he shares Waldman’s conviction that anything which shapes candidates’ orientation to the world around us is legitimately worth knowing, particularly if it is involves metaphysical assertions about the very nature of being, the purpose of human life, and the direction of history.

Waldman seems to be thinking mainly of Mitt Romney in this connection (though the accompanying photo is of Rick Santorum accepting a laying-on-of-hands prayer in 2012), and he goes on to say Mitt has a special responsibility to talk about his religion since it’s one most Americans know little about. I’m down with that, but am actually more concerned with the religious views of other Republican candidates.

Yes, there are proto-candidates who say with some credibility that their religion has a big impact on their political views and/or their sense of mission, including Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Ben Carson, like Mitt Romney, belongs to a church most Americans would consider exotic, the Seventh Day Adventists, and he talks a lot about faith. Carly Fiorina doesn’t go to church a lot, but says she used to read a lot of St. Thomas Aquinas. John Bolton, a member of the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church, doesn’t much mention it. And I’d say it’s pretty clear Hillary Clinton is a reasonably serious Methodist.

But then you have some other candidates who have more or less made it clear they view themselves (sincerely or not) as spiritual warriors who are in politics in no small part to vindicate a faith threatened by unbelievers and false believers. They would include Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz. Scott Walker, a conservative evangelical who’s said on occasion that he’s on a divine mission, is a borderline case; we’ll see how he behaves among the very explicitly theocratic conservative clergy and laity of Iowa in the months just ahead. And then there’s Bobby Jindal, the self-described “evangelical Catholic” who seems to want to make his campaign a religious crusade, but doesn’t appear to know the words or the music to that particular hymn.

The point here is that the instinctive antipathy towards talking about the religion of political candidates goes from being a small to a big mistake when said candidates are explicitly making religious appeals, not just in the generic “God Bless America” sense but by telling certain kinds of believers they’d better get on board the bandwagon or they’ll wind up nailed to a cross, which is more or less what Mike Huckabee’s been saying lately. Personally, Mitt Romney’s religion is pretty far down my list of concerns.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.