At a campaign stop in Winston-Salem, North Carolina when he was running for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter was answering questions from supporters when one asked if he was “a born-again Christian.” Southern politicians were used to such questions, and Carter didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he said, before explaining that while he had grown up in the church, he realized as an adult that “I had lacked something very precious—a complete commitment to Christ.”
Carter’s supporters nodded in understanding. But the political reporters following the candidate were stumped. What was this born-again business? Newsweek ran a cover story proclaiming 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” which tried to analyze how Carter’s faith might influence his presidency. On the NBC Nightly News, anchor John Chancellor announced to viewers that “We have checked on the religious meaning of Carter’s profound experience.” They had learned, he said, “it is described by other Baptists as a common experience, not something out of the ordinary.”
While the journalism world was busy discovering evangelical Christians, very few stopped to question whether the specific nature of a candidate’s faith was a relevant topic for campaign coverage. Thirty-six years later, journalists continue to approach politicians’ religious faith as if it is both an obviously relevant issue and yet still an exotic characteristic. Last summer, after Michele Bachmann said she had felt called to campaign for the White House, David Gregory grilled her on Meet the Press, trying to determine if the Minnesota congresswoman believed she had literally heard the voice of God telling her to run for president. As Mitt Romney captures the GOP nomination, the press corps will continue to report on all manner of questions about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, in the name of educating the public about the possibility of the nation’s first president from that religious tradition.
But are any of these inquiries appropriate or relevant in the midst of a presidential campaign? Officially, the United States has no religious test for elected officials. Article VI, section 3 of the Constitution states that, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This prohibition, however, does not prevent politicians from using their religious identities to appeal to voters. Nor does it prevent voters from considering religion as a factor—or even the factor—in assessing candidates.
Since 2000, more than two-thirds of Americans have told Pew pollsters that they want their president to be a person of faith, effectively imposing a test of religious belief for candidates. Some go even further, reserving their support for candidates who profess theological beliefs that align with their own. In this 2012 campaign, conservative religious leaders have gathered on several occasions to explicitly discuss their concerns about candidates not seen as sufficiently Christian or theologically conservative.
But do we as voters have the right to press candidates about their religious beliefs? And regardless of whether voters or religious leaders care about a candidate’s faith, do journalists have an obligation to ask questions about it? I believe the answer to both questions is yes if—and only if—a candidate makes an issue of her own faith.
In that situation, there are two main questions that journalists need to ask: 1) Would your religious beliefs have any bearing on the actions you would take in office? And 2) If so, how?
When a politician makes their personal faith a part of his political persona, it is not just appropriate but imperative that journalists and voters press them to go deeper. Very few candidates who talk about their faith would be willing to say that it would not influence them as president. (Ron Paul was a notable exception in a January debate, arguing that his faith shapes his personal behavior but that as an elected official he answers to the constitution.) But they are also not eager to get into specifics.
In general, politicians—and especially Republican politicians—talk about faith as a way of connecting with very specific groups of voters. But the U.S. is a pluralistic society, in which they represent people of all faiths and no faith. Politicians need to be prepared to explain if and how their religious beliefs would translate into policy decisions. And how consistent that religious influence would be. Would religion shape policy on abortion and birth control but not economics and immigration? Why? Questions that get into these details make it more difficult for candidates to insist that their faith means everything to them while arguing that they shouldn’t have to spell out what that means.
Voters may need to ask themselves questions as well. For many Americans, religion is simply a proxy, a way of getting a sense of a candidate’s moral foundation or philosophical worldview. They aren’t wrong to care about the moral views that guide a candidate. The problem is that religion has become so politicized that it actually gets in the way of providing that moral clarity. Yet liberals and conservatives alike have fallen for the mistaken belief that a candidate’s religious beliefs are the key to predicting how they will govern.
Last fall, I taped a segment for the NPR program On the Media about how reporters cover religion on the campaign trail. For more than an hour, host Bob Garfield and I debated the relevance of candidates’ theological beliefs, although only a small portion of our conversation could make it into the taped program. Garfield took what has become the standard journalistic position, that everything about a candidate’s religious views should be on the table. “Shouldn’t we know if Rick Santorum believes homosexuality is a sin?” he asked me at one point. No, I replied. The relevant question is not whether Santorum believes homosexuality is a sin but whether he would seek to ban gay marriage as president or prevent gay members of the military from serving. So just ask him that. All too often, journalism fixates on politicians’ motivations for taking positions instead of the positions themselves.
The challenge for all of us is that there is no fool-proof way of divining the moral compass of a potential president. There is no questionnaire that could lay bare a candidate’s soul and put voters’ minds at ease. So instead we’ve fallen back on litmus tests or symbolic gestures or rousing slogans. The hard work will be convincing ourselves that we elect presidents not knowing all of their faults or the inner strength they might possess. We take instead a leap of faith.