Religion has mattered in elections from Day One

Sunday, November 7, 1999

The “character issue” appears to have put religious faith front and center in the 2000 presidential race. Al Gore and George W. Bush, the leading contenders for the nomination in their respective parties, never miss an opportunity to proclaim the depth of their religious commitment.

That works well for Gore and Bush because they have the “right” religion for presidential politics. Few politicians who aren't mainstream Christians would bother to run for president, much less talk publicly about their personal religious experience.

Even more rare is the candidate who admits to no religious affiliation or who dares to criticize religion. Look at what happened to Jesse “The Body” Ventura. When he called members of organized religion “weak-minded,” his poll numbers plummeted overnight.

Religious affiliation, of course, is not a constitutional requirement for holding office in the United States. In fact, the only mention of religion in the Constitution prior to the adoption of the First Amendment was the “no religious test” provision of Article VI. For the first time in history, a nation abolished one of the state's most powerful tools for oppressing religious minorities.

The end of formal tests for office, however, didn't put an end to informal tests. Throughout our history, religious affiliation (or lack thereof) has played a significant role in presidential elections.

Our very first president — the one now viewed as beyond criticism — was attacked as an atheist by his political opponents. He wasn't. But he said very little publicly about his deist beliefs, knowing full well that his lack of Christian orthodoxy would not be accepted by much of the citizenry. (Deism is a faith based on reason rather than revelation.)

Thomas Jefferson was even more bitterly and frequently branded as an “unbeliever.” Although Jefferson, like Washington, tried to avoid the controversy, his deist views were widely known. In the election of 1800, many Christian ministers tried unsuccessfully to defeat Jefferson by circulating pamphlets attacking him as immoral and irreligious.

In this century, one of the lesser-known examples of religious affiliation as a campaign issue marked the election of 1908. William Howard Taft was condemned by opponents for his Unitarian beliefs, since many evangelical Protestants of the time viewed that faith with antagonism and suspicion.

Taft refused to discuss the issue. But his campaign planted press stories emphasizing that Mrs. Taft was an Episcopalian and that their daughter had been confirmed in that faith. Fortunately for Taft, letters he had written years earlier making clear that he rejected the divinity of Jesus did not surface in the campaign. Otherwise he might well have been defeated.

The informal test for presidential candidates has changed somewhat in the second half of the 20th century. The 1960 election of John F. Kennedy — a Roman Catholic — finally broke the unofficial barrier that had previously excluded non-Protestants from the presidency.

How much further is the electorate willing to go? Being Greek Orthodox didn't appear to handicap Michael Dukakis. (He lost for other reasons.) In the current election, Orrin Hatch is betting that being a Mormon won't hurt his chances (as it did George Romney's some years ago).

But are we ready for a Jewish president? Can a Muslim get elected? It's hard to say. Given our history, breaking these barriers may still be some years away.

The most unelectable candidate today would most likely be the self-proclaimed atheist. That's why all candidates for president — no matter how religious they may or may not actually be — make every effort to look religious.

In a nation with millions of deeply religious citizens, it's hardly surprising that many voters view religious faith as an important indication of good character. But it's hard to read the hearts of candidates. Public pronouncements of religious affiliation say little about genuine faith, much less about how effective a person might be as president.

In choosing a captain for the ship of state, we seek someone who can navigate well in stormy seas, who treats all members of the crew with fairness and respect, and who has a clear vision of where to steer the ship. Those abilities — rather than religious preference — are the true indicators of presidential potential.