Three Problems with Asking Religious Questions of Political Candidates

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Last night I tuned in to the Democratic primary debate between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. It’s the first Democratic debate I’ve watched during this election season. After watching a couple of big tent circus acts called the Republican debate, it was refreshing to actually see two accomplished leaders in our country spar over ideas.

Granted, Clinton and Sanders share the same basic world and life view. Consequently, their debate was within a shared framework. But the exchange included very direct questions from the moderator and panel of questioners as well as some substantive policy discussion. It was far more than I’ve seen elsewhere.

Among the things that stood out to me were the direct questions about religious faith. An audience member asked Senator Sanders whether God was relevant in his view. The same questioner asked Secretary Clinton if she prayed and to whom she prayed. Frankly, the answers were lackluster.

This morning I’m more concerned about what such questions suggest about those of us who ask them and the place of such questions in our political discourse. Here are three such concerns:

  1. The questions encourage hypocrisy.

As I think about it, Sanders and Clinton (any candidate) asked about their religious faith are tempted to hypocrisy. How do you answer that question in a way that presents yourself honestly and avoid offending significant swaths of the American voting public? The politician feels a responsibility for not offending people. They are, after all, seeking to be public servants.

But we live in such a polarized time—including religious polarization—that a non-offending reply is nearly impossible. Even evasions of the sort we saw last night will no doubt leave some a little chafed. I felt for Clinton and Sanders. Neither candidate ran on a “religious platform” or openly offered themselves as exemplars of some religious tradition. Yet they were giving an account for questions and realities they may have thought very little about or may have not resolved with any conviction. In the country’s largest “fear of man festival” the allure of hypocrisy must be tremendous. The worst thing they could do is answer well, save the answer as a talking point if asked later, and go on feeling like a debate success but having none of the power of godliness that saves. And, we religious folks then receive precisely what we’ve fomented with our questions: hypocrisy in the highest office.

  1. The questions politicize the faith.

I believe people of faith belong in the public square. I believe they must bring their faith with them if they’re going to be people of integrity. And I believe religion—not just spirituality, but good old-fashioned religion—has a lot to offer in the way of public goods. Sanders said as much when he attributed Christianity’s neighbor love ethic to all religions. Forgetting for a moment that the ethic is really only found in a pronounced way in Christianity, Sanders was laying claim to a public good—a religious public good.

But when a candidate is asked about their faith or the “relevance of God,” they’re being asked a political question. At that point, Christianity (or any religion) becomes a weapon, a tribal spear designed to pierce the body politic. The very asking tears asunder. Candidates either speak the shibboleth and enter the tribe (so it seems; remember the hypocrisy), or they fail the test and are denied entry. And what have we done to our religion? We’ve sullied it with the smut of “political tricks” and “sound bites.” We’ve reduced what’s big, glorious, weighty and transcendent to the small, petty and sometimes ridiculous. Christianity shouldn’t be politicized even though it teaches principles necessary to godly political behavior.

  1. It suggests a religious test for public office.

My good brother Kevin Smith tweeted this to me following the religious questions posed last night:

Of course Kevin is correct. We have no religious test for public office in this country and that’s a good thing. The framers understood what tyranny could result in a country that politicized religion to the point of litmus testing. They also understood that being a person of religious faith does not ipso facto make you a worthy public servant. Perhaps it would be no surprise at all to the framers that the people who seem to have forgotten this lesson are religious folks themselves. In an election season where at least one primary candidate promises to “extend” the rules on torture and another is being dubbed “God’s choice” for the presidency, we’re probably wise not to give them added religious zeal and approval.

Now, I know simply asking the question doesn’t establish a formal religious test. But I also know that informal practices, cultural ways of being, have a sneaky way of becoming de facto law before they become formal law.

So, all this to say: Let those of us who love the Lord and the faith be careful about how we engage candidates about their personal faith. If we hope to reach them, we probably don’t want them thinking we only care about these questions as political points or religious tests. And we probably don’t want them skilled at being hypocrites when and if we do get to talk with them.

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