Keep Religion Out of Politics

  • by:
    • Abraham H. Foxman
  • November 15, 2011

A Baptist pastor describes the Mormon faith as a "cult" and proclaims that he would prefer not to vote for a Mormon candidate. Another Christian leader calls for Americans to elect "a man of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith."

Here we go again.

Another presidential election year has brought with it another infusion of religion into politics.

Talking to reporters a few weeks ago, Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas called the Mormon faith "a cult" and said he would prefer "a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian."

At the recent Values Voter Summit, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said that the "ideal profile of the next president of the United States" should be "a man of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith."

Both assertions are deeply misguided and profoundly undemocratic.

Apparently neither Jeffress nor Fischer has looked at Article VI of the United States Constitution, which embodies the Founders' view of the role of religion and elected officials -- and emphatically rejects all religious tests for public office. It's time for them -- and others who are seeking to make an issue out of the Mormon faith of two prominent candidates -- to consider this provision and recognize that such statements are inappropriate.

Real leadership demands a demonstrated commitment to our nation's founding principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and equality. None of the other candidates for the Republican nomination has explicitly raised this subject, but the candidates' condemnation of this anti-Mormon stereotyping and these religious appeals to voters has been tepid. All candidates of good faith must swiftly, publicly and definitively reject and repudiate religious-based election appeals.

Sadly, America has not made as much progress as many thought we have regarding faith and elections since presidential candidate John F. Kennedy -- over a half-century ago -- found it necessary to openly declare he was "not the Catholic candidate for president" but "the Democratic Party's candidate who happens also to be a Catholic."

Even Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is not a new issue. During the 2008 election, when he was a national candidate for the first time, his faith came under attack and two polls found that one-quarter of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. Sadly, little has changed for the 2012 presidential race. According to a June 2011 Gallop Poll, 22 percent of Americans would not elect a Mormon president today, and a more recent September nationwide telephone survey by Poll Position found that 32 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon to be president. These findings reflect not only anti-Mormon bias, but also widespread ignorance of a fundamental American principle. Not only does the Constitution insist that there can be no religious prerequisites to being on the ballot, but equally as important, a candidate's private religious beliefs should not be held against him or her.

In a democracy such as ours, each candidate must be judged based on his or her individual position and abilities. No doubt there are valid issues involving the role of religion in public life to be debated and discussed, including the appropriateness of faith-based government programs. And candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters and commenting about how their own religious beliefs shape their policy perspectives. But they should be cognizant that there is a point where an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse nation. 

While many Americans do not seem bothered by excessive religious discourse in the public sphere, countless others find it off-putting. The United States is made up of many different types of people from different backgrounds and different faiths -- including individuals who do not believe in any God. None of our citizens should be treated as outcasts or made to feel like second-class citizens because they are different.

In addition to alienation, there is reason to be concerned about the impact of such excessive religious speech on religion itself. Religion-based appeals to voters are often made with promises to promote policies and programs that promote one religion over another or promise a closer intermingling of government and religion. That co-mingling is not healthy for religion. History teaches that it is the separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment that has helped religious practices and beliefs to flourish in America.

More than two centuries ago, in 1790, George Washington told the Hebrew congregation of Newport, R.I., that America would provide "to bigotry no sanction." For that promise to be fulfilled, candidates and their supporters must resist reaching out to voters along religious lines and reject divisive appeals rooted in bias or prejudice.