Until Democrat Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1975, the issue of a presidential candidate’s religious faith wasn’t an open topic for discussion. That is clearly not the case today. In last Thursday’s Republican debate, candidates were asked a silly and wholly inappropriate question: “[Have] any of them … received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first?”
The question, submitted via Facebook but adopted by the panel of questioners, drew largely non-answers from the candidates. But even some of the non-answers made some viewers uncomfortable. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker testified to viewers that “it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins,” but went on to say that “God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing. God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day.”
Some will be relieved to hear this. But should the question have been asked in the first place?
We agree with Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, who commented that “this type of chatter demeans our sacred teachings, exploits the passions of voters of faith and isolates those Americans who do not share a particular concept of the divine.” But nary a whimper was heard from the presidential contenders.
There were other less outrageous instances where religion became the focus of the debate discussion.
For example, in what might be called biblically inspired policy, Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, advocated for a flat tax based upon the tithe offering of 10 percent.
And then there was the question asked of Ohio Gov. John Kasich about how he defended expanding Medicaid in his state by “saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.”
In his response, Kasich redirected the issue to his objective of making the government program more broadly available for the betterment of all people, arguing that beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion included the mentally ill and drug addicted, who received treatment to keep them out of prison. He added: “Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose.”
While we say amen to that, we would be much more comfortable keeping God out of the debates.
I appreciate your endorsement of Interfaith Alliance’s position on this matter, but I must correct a misconception. The personal religious faith of presidential candidates has indeed been a matter of public discussion many times in the nation’s past, often centered around the suitability of a Roman Catholic like Al Smith or John Kennedy for office. While Joseph Lieberman was celebrated for his devotion to Jewish practice and values, his exuberance about his faith was discussed widely in both the Jewish and general press. What is different since the rise of the religious right in politics is an expectation that candidates will place Scripture above the Constitution. Fox News’s question reflects a dangerous flirtation with ideas explicitly prohibited by Article VI which says, ” no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”