Religious Tests, Bigotry and the Race for the White House
By John W. Whitehead
“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”—Article VI, U.S. Constitution
Growing up in the 1960s, I saw first-hand the religious bigotry that John F. Kennedy encountered over his Catholic faith.
Kennedy arrived at a time when the nation was desperate for someone young, fresh and purposeful to steer us out of the morass of conflict, civil unrest and economic uncertainty in which the country seemed to be mired. And yet despite Kennedy’s attempts to campaign on the issues of the day, it was his Catholicism that took center stage, at least during the early days of his campaign. Opponents stirred up fears among a largely Protestant America that a Catholic in the White House would result in the Pope running the country and compromise the constitutional separation of church and state.
Hoping to allay fears about the role his religious beliefs would play were he elected, Kennedy agreed to address 300 clergymen attending the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. In a speech that riveted the nation and quelled fears, Kennedy told his audience that he believed in an “America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
Having called out the bigots, Kennedy’s subsequent ascension to the White House signaled a shift in the public’s acceptance of Catholicism. For presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, however, public acceptance of his Mormon beliefs is still a long way off.
Thus, perhaps hoping to calm concerns about his Mormon faith, Romney recently delivered a speech to supporters at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas entitled “Faith in America,” in which he talked about the importance of religious liberty in America, invoked Kennedy’s 1960 speech and tried to allay fears that if he were elected, the Church of Latter Day Saints would rule from the White House.
Yet the problem as I see it is not Romney’s religion. Rather, it’s the fact that Americans are being urged to vote their religion. As George Packer points out in the New Yorker, “Religiosity—as opposed to religion—now completely infects our politics. Democrats have to swear that they believe; Republicans have to swear that they believe literally. In 2008, Kennedy’s brand of secularism would be torn to pieces by pastoral commissars, fretful advisers, and a shallow press corps.”
Despite the Constitution’s clear prohibition of a religious test for office, the race for the White House has turned into a campaign to get Americans to vote—or not vote—in blocs for particular candidates based on their religious beliefs. As Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, recently remarked to the Boston Globe: “Kennedy’s speech was actually an antireligion speech; it was a don’t pay-any-attention-to-my-Catholicism speech. In the 2007 Republican Party you can’t do that, because it’s a party that essentially has a religious test for the nomination.”
However, we must never forget that the nature of politics being compromise, no matter what a politician says, everything a politician does is political. And very few politicians are non-political. Thus, there can be no such thing as a Christian candidate for office. Or a Jewish candidate. Or a Mormon candidate. In the end, they are all politicians.
Unfortunately, time and again, religious individuals (particularly Christians), determined to seek out a political savior, conveniently forget this truth. And as history has shown, time and again that dependence by religion upon the state for legitimacy has not served religion—or government—well.
Religion does have a part to play in the national dialogue about our freedoms. The voice of moral authority raised without dependence upon the legitimacy of the state will always be the highest expression of true freedom. Such a voice denies the ultimate authority of the government to create or define right or wrong by its own power. In this way, religious individuals are able to speak truth to power.
Religion also has a part to play in politics. For those who subscribe to particular religious beliefs, those beliefs understandably shape their perceptions of what is important in a candidate. However, religious individuals should beware of trading in their birthright for a bowl of political porridge.
Furthermore, religion should not be the only factor considered. As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “Religious bigotry is as immoral, undemocratic, un-American and un-Christian as racial bigotry.”
Speaking as a Christian and a lawyer, I can say that setting a religious test for the 2008 presidential election is both unwise and unconstitutional.
Character counts. So does experience. So do moral values. But what we really need is an administrator in the White House who can actually run the country, shore up the economy and be a diplomat to the world. Most of all, we need someone who will abide by his or her oath to uphold the Constitution.