The Candidate’s Religion

Peter Augustine Lawler

January 1, 2008

Should people vote for a candidate because of his religion? Should candidates make explicitly religious appeals to voters? Do we have any reason to be concerned because presidential candidate Mike Huckabee describes himself, on occasion, as a “Christian leader”? Or because Mitt Romney felt compelled to explain both that his religious beliefs are consistent with the values and aspirations of all Americans, and that, as a man of faith, he can be trusted to lead well?

The Constitution does prohibit religious tests for office. But all that means is that nobody can be legally excluded from office because of his or her religion. The Constitution, in fact, offers no instruction to candidates on what to say about religion or to voters on whether or how they should be moved by a candidate’s religion.

James Madison, in The Federalist, assumed that candidates would sometimes make religious appeals, and that these appeals might be aimed at rousing up some majority against some minority or another. Religious passion, in democracies, has sometimes been the basis of some majority faction trampling on individual rights. Persuasive politicians are constantly tempted to gain support by encouraging popular injustice.

Madison’s solution was not to outlaw such appeals. They can’t be eradicated without stamping out freedom itself. His goal, instead, was to defend a Constitution under which they probably won’t work. In the extended and diverse republic created by the Constitution, it’s highly unlikely that any passionate religious opinion will command anywhere near majority support. And so to be effective, politicians will have to temper their passionate appeals with a coalition-based strategy that brings together Americans of a variety of faiths and interests. The result will be a majority that’s not really a “majority faction”—an oppressive force united by some intense passion.

It’s inevitable that some people will vote for and against candidates because of their religion, just as it is inevitable that candidates will sometimes make rather sectarian appeals. Identity politics will never disappear in a free country: An overwhelming majority of Catholics voted for Catholic presidential candidates Al Smith and John Kennedy, most Mormons are voting for Romney, and evangelicals, on one level, are responding to Huckabee simply as a man proud to be one of their own. (Polls even show that a disproportionate number of Catholics are supporting Giuliani, although he’s hardly much of a Catholic.) But Madison was confident that under our Constitution extreme, rights-denying versions of such identity politics would have little success in our national political life.

Religious appeals in American politics have generally been most effective when combined with appeals to constitutional principles that Americans share in common. Remember Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They both displayed themselves as Christian leaders, but in ways that harmonized their personal faith with the providential, natural, judgmental God of our Declaration of Independence. Neither King nor Lincoln believed that his religion was just window-dressing for his political teaching: The moral impetus for overcoming injustice depends upon a God who secures our rights better than we can all on our own. It’s very doubtful that men and women without any personal faith at all can really devote themselves to the proposition that all men are created equal. That’s one reason, among many, that we’ve never had a president who proclaimed himself an atheist, or who never acknowledged our nation’s gratitude to God.

It’s a common but fundamental error to believe that religion in America is to be judged as primarily an instrument for securing rights. The liberty our Constitution secures is only good in view of its purposes. We’re free from political domination to be friends, family members, citizens, and creatures or members of religious communities. Our free exercise of religion is for religion, and our “rights of conscience” can’t be exercised effectively or truly in lonely isolation. Our nation is characterized by religious diversity, or not by a homogeneous indifference to religion. And our belief in the equality of all human beings under God is an indispensable limit to the excesses of “progressivism,” a limit to what we believe can or should be achieved by egalitarian political reform. Our genuinely Christian belief has spared us extreme efforts, at least, to obliterate the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man.

A related fundamental error is the belief of some libertarians and some atheists that our “secular” principles of contract and consent are meant to transform all of our lives. It’s true enough that the Supreme Court seems to have been busy trying to achieve a complete reconstruction of all our institutions in terms of individual rights. But our evangelicals, for example, are completely in accord with the real spirit of our Founding when they say that issues relating to marriage and abortion are largely left for the people to decide according to their moral lights. The judicial or elitist manufacturing of rights to unrestricted abortion and same-sex marriage are real threats to our freedom for religion, and it’s perfectly understandable why people of faith would campaign, as people of faith, against such threats to their freedom to speak and choose as believers. People of faith have every right to contend that only when Roe v. Wade is reversed will they stop being marginalized as citizens.

Governor Huckabee’s appeals to religion aren’t so different from those of King or Lincoln. People say they vote for him because they share his values and trust his character. His core value, it seems, is the equal dignity of all human beings. And one of his favorite slogans is “when in doubt, choose life”—one certainly in the spirit of the Declaration properly understood. On its basis, he’s equally concerned with the rights of working people, the unfortunate, and the unborn. One of his favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton (no American and no evangelical), says that America, “a nation with the soul of a church,” is a genuine home for the homeless because of an egalitarian dogma—presented with elegant lucidity in our Declaration—about God as the source of meaning in the universe and of each one of us.

Huckabee is genuine and pretty consistent in his belief in a doctrine of equality that’s not limited to his fellow believers. He’s surely not aiming to rouse up a majority faction with the intention of marginalizing and violating the rights of some minority of Americans. After all, his evangelicals are just one American religious minority among many, and they in some ways feel plenty oppressed or victimized themselves. Being tyrannized by some evangelical or Christian majority faction is just not in our national future. Huckabee’s not calling for any legal privileging of his fellow evangelicals or his fellow Christians over other Americans. Nor is he using his faith to justify injustices such as slavery or segregation, the subjection of women, or even the stigmatizing of gays.

If Chesterton is right about the American dogma, Huckabee’s basic political faith is shared well enough by a majority of Americans. And if Madison is right, only if he can build a coalition of a variety of believers can he achieve success on the national level. Presumably, his sectarian excesses or narrowness would be moderated by what he would have to say and do to convince a majority of Americans that they share his values. My criticism of Huckabee is not that he’s a “Christian leader,” but that he lacks confidence, so far, in the common faith his fellow Americans are quite capable of sharing. Far from fearing him as some kind of dangerous demagogue, I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t have what it takes, at least right now, to come anywhere close to even getting the Republican nomination.

Let me close by mentioning one peripheral but particularly contentious issue—evolution. To some Americans, Governor Huckabee has proven his unfitness for office by rejecting the reigning evolutionary theory. He does so because of his faith in the world’s creation by a personal God. He does not seem to believe that the world is literally six-thousand and some years old; he’s said he’s pretty much an agnostic on the details of creation. But he still creates the impression that if it weren’t for his faithful trust in the account in Genesis he’d accept the scientists’ reasonable and basically atheistic and materialistic account of our origins.

The truth is that any reasonable person should be able to see that the scientistic or ideological proposition that a homogeneous and materialistic theory of evolution explains everything about being human is incompatible with our ideas of individual rights and the dignity of every human person. Evolutionary theory, in fact, doesn’t explain what’s distinctively human about us all. It can’t explain why it’s the nature of members of one species—and one species only—to live freely and responsibly in light of the truth. It can’t explain why only members of that species institute political life based on the fundamental distinctions that equally separate us all from the other animals and from God. Can confidently atheistic scientists really explain why we employ our freedom to be religious animals, or why the Americans who seem to experience themselves as most at home in this world and in their country believe that their true home is someone else? The choice, Huckabee needs to see, is not between religion and science, but for the truth about our freedom all Americans can share in common.

Peter Augustine Lawler is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College.