Religion and Political Candidacy

For the past couple of weeks, the American public has seen an increased interest in the religious backgrounds of political candidates, mostly in the race for the GOP nomination for 2012 presidential candidacy. I dare not say it “started” with Dr. Robert Jeffress’ remarks concerning Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith in contrast with Rick Perry’s Christian faith. That claim would be much too elementary. Religion in political candidacy is as old as the electoral process. And very rarely has religion “not played a role” in that process, as many in the secular realm would have us believe today. I weighed in on a CNN FaceBook Poll concerning this reality earlier this week. The question was, “Do you think that evaluating a candidate’s religion is valid in the electoral process?” My answer was, “OF COURSE it’s valid! – A person’s religion is at the core of his or her belief system, and it is from the core that every man or woman leads.”

I believe we’ve set ourselves on a course for irrationalism concerning the so-called, “separation of church and state.” The meaning of that phrase has evolved almost intractably from only decades ago. That the federal government is not to be involved in the affairs of churches or religions is fundmental. But it is irrational to think that churches – and even more arguably, individual spiritual beliefs – can play no role in governmental or electoral affairs. Allow me to explain:

Spiritual beliefs shape a person, and rightfully so. If Christianity is my religion, I will most probably lead from historic Christian principles, morals, and standards. If Mormonism is my religion, likewise. Likewise also for Muslims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses (but you won’t see them in the government – Know why?… because their religious beliefs forbid it), Cabalists, Buddhists, Hindus, and any other religion, including non-religions. Religion and spirituality seek to answer the most fundamental questions of life: “What’s the purpose of life?” “What is most important in life?” “What is my fundamental duty to the rest of humanity?” . . . The answers to these questions and others like them form the boundaries that shape morality and ethicality. How one answers those questions, even internally, will have an enormous impact on how a person leads.

For instance:

President Barak Obama, although claiming Christianity as his official religion, shows himself to be a liberationist. The church which for years taught him spiritual truth, is a liberationist fellowship. As a liberationist, Obama sees an inherent responsibility on the government and its wealthier constituents to physically and monetarily provide for those who live in want. Therefore, when faced with the dilemma of either acquiescing to his constituents’ desires on the one hand, or choosing to usurp those desires using the power given to him, he reverts to his most fundamental belief… and the will of the constituency is of no consequence. Why? – Because at his core, President Obama believes we have a duty to provide for the “less fortunate,” even if that means taking by force to fund that fundamental belief (as evidenced in statements like, “Republicans can come along for the ride, but they’re gonna have to sit in the back,” from October 2010), and even if that means creating a tax system that is disproportionately unbalanced in favor of lower-income families, even making statements like, “it’s time for the rich to pay their FAIR SHARE.” In my own belief system, “fair” and “equal” are the same. In his belief system, “fair” and “equal” are absolutely not the same. Right or wrong? You are free to decide. But at least see how his leadership is heavily influenced by his core, religious beliefs.

President Abraham Lincoln, when faced with the moral dilemma of slavery, chose to go against the will of half of his constituency and lead the country into the deadliest war we have ever fought. And I don’t know an American alive today who would openly profess that in retrospect, his leadership in this area was a mistake. No – we commend him for this difficult decision, and for his dedication to moral purity in his leadership of our government. As far as religion is concerned, Lincoln was not a self-proclaimed member of any particular Christian church, but he did uphold the truth and sufficiency of the Christian scriptures (“That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures,” – in a handbill replying to charges of infidelity, 1846). Those scriptures undeniably teach that the kind of slavery legally taking place in pre-abolition America was, is, and always will be against God’s will. It was morally wrong based on the scriptures which he considered sacred and Truthful (“Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature; opposition to it is in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism,” – during a speech at Peoria, 1854). “Eternal antagonism.” “The selfishness of man’s nature.” “Love and justice.” These phrases and ideas come from the Christian scriptures. I, for one, am glad that President Lincoln was a man who led from his moral center, as shaped by his spiritual convictions.

So is religious belief and affiliation “fair game” when considering a candidate for office? You bet it is. Spiritual beliefs shape the central, core beliefs of a person. And it is from the core of a person that leadership is birthed and nurtured. We should always be evaluating the spiritual and religious activity of our candidates. Here are a few more points that I believe are vitally important to this discussion:

1. Disbelief in religion or “a god” is still a significant religious/spiritual affiliation to explore and evaluate in candidacy. “Humanism” is the term given to those belief systems which focus more on the supremacy of human philosophy, thought, and/or capability than on any historic religious belief system. In essence, non-belief in any religion is a belief in a religion in itself. It is a religion in which the mind of the individual reigns supreme; the highest state of being is found inside the physiology and abilities of the human agent, and therefore, any appeal to a higher authority is pointless and irrelevant. Those who lead from a humanistic perspective will absolutely be hostile toward the advancement, protection, or support of any established religion. If at the core of an individual, religion itself is seen as harmful to individual potential, it is religion that is the enemy – and what leader in his or her right mind would want to empower, encourage, or defend the number one enemy to his or her constituents? Humanism or non-religion is just as valid an exploration in political candidacy as anything else.

HOWEVER – Just because someone does not openly claim a specific historic religion does not mean he or she is not an adherent of one. Don’t assume that if a candidate’s religious affiliation is not publicly disclosed, he or she is a humanist, agnostic, or atheist. Many candidates choose to make their religious affiliations private, and they have the right to do so. More on this in #3 below.

2. Just because someone claims a certain religion does not mean that he or she is guided by its principles. I think we’ve all been around long enough to see that not everyone who claims a certain religion is actually a devout member of it. Shallow religious adherence has become almost descriptive of the age in which we live. Many people who claim Christianity as their religion are in fact, something else. For instance, some claim Christianity because they attend a Christian church… but that doesn’t make them a Christian – and therefore, the historic moral principles of Christianity would probably not guide their moral compass as a devoted Christian would expect. There are also entire religions which claim to be “Christian,” yet, are not. Two of such religions are the Mormon Church (The Church of Latter Day Saints) and the Jehovah’s Witness Church (or the “Watchtower”). Although they claim Christianity, and make use of the historic Christian scriptures, they do not share Christianity’s fundamental core beliefs regarding salvation, the diety of Christ, or views on life after death.

HOWEVER – this does not give us license to ignore someone’s claim to a certain religion. If we know little about the religion a candidate claims, we should seek to understand at the very minimum, the key doctrines which guide its principles. Those major doctrines will have heavy influence on the decisions of this individual when in office. Also, even when someone claims a specific religion, it is imperative that we evaluate his or her record and history to see if the decisions being made are in line with the claim being made. Two examples: (A) President Obama’s active Liberation Theology as contrasted with his professed Christian religiosity (as explained above). (B) Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Catholic (“Christian”) Republican Senator from Miami, FL who has recently jumped on board the pro-homosexual (explicitly set forth as sin in the Christian scriptures, and openly denounced in the Catholic Church) agenda against the will of her state constituents.

3. Evaluating a candidate’s religious affiliation and openly discussing religion in debates or other public candidacy forums is NOT a violation of what has become known as “separation of church and state.” The bottom-line boundaries which separate the church and the state in our legal system have nothing to do with a suppression of free speech or of public religious practice. It has everything to do with two things: money and appointment. No church should receive funding from the government. And no government should receive funding from the church. No church should have appointing powers to the government, and no government should have appointing powers to the church. That’s it. All there is to it. Why? (A) Because money talks. And it talks so much louder than words. The threat of withholding funds on either side of an integrated church-and-state approach to national polity can damage both the government AND the church. Money should not be involved. (B) Because appointment powers are paved roads to national theocracies. Appointing “my people” to lofty positions on either side ensures a conflict of interest. Theoretically, it inevitably leads to either a state-run church, or a church-run state. Historically, we have seen that when the church and state marries, the church has always become the abused wife and the state its dictatorial master.

HOWEVER – openly discussing religion and publicly displaying religion are rights granted to us by our Creator, and acknowledged in the Bill of Rights, part of the the Preamble to the the Constitution of these United States. So yes, religious affiliation is fair game in considering candidacy for political office. But each individual also has a God-given and US constitutionally recognized right to not answer the question of religious affiliation, or to not discuss it as he or she sees fit. And to be honest, the unwillingness of a candidate to disclose or discuss spiritual or religious beliefs, in my book, speaks just as loudly as if he or she had disclosed or discussed those beliefs. Let’s not be silenced by the empty threats of irrationality in the realm of religion in political candidacy.

4. Pastors and religious leaders have the right to endorse and support whatever candidate they would like. As individuals, pastors and religious leaders have the same rights as anyone else in this country. Why are we shocked or appalled when they choose to endorse or support a certain candidate for office? Do pastors have influence over their flocks? Yes. Don’t movie stars and business gurus as well? Why do we look down upon religious leaders who endorse candidates and not upon secular leaders who endorse candidates? – in both cases, their influence has the potential to sway voters one way or another. Legally, what does it matter if that sway is rooted in secular reasoning or spiritual reasoning? Secular and religious leaders share the same rights . . .  Admittedly, though, it does become a legal problem when a pastor uses that influence in such a way that his church officially supports or endorses a certain candidate. The church itself cannot officially endorse anyone for office. But every individual inside its body can… including the leaders in the church body.

HOWEVER – Although it is perfectly legal for a pastor or religious leader to publicly endorse a specific candidate for office, it is not always wise. Discernment should be exorcised in its greatest degree by a pastor considering open endorsement of a political candidate. That action can have potentially severe ramifications.

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WHY THIS POST?! So that you’ll take its words seriously, I won’t endorse anyone at all in this blog post. But know that I am free to do so, just as you are. The point that I wanted to make here is that religion is not only “fair game” in the questioning of political candidates, but it is a vitally important territory to explore in every candidate.

 

Grace and Peace,

Tony