The following is a talk I gave this evening at America House, whose mission is “to encourage a dialogue between the United States and Jerusalemites in order to foster mutual understanding and emphasize shared values.” I spoke on the role of religion in U.S. presidential elections. As perhaps can be seen in my talk, I expected a small gathering of a high school or university students. Instead, I spoke to two NGO directors, three professors, and the head of a major Islamic endowment. It was exciting and a bit intimidating. We had a half-hour discussion afterwards, which I hope they continue without the need for it to be constantly translated for me into English, which slowed down the conversation some!
I’d like to begin by thanking the entire America House team, and especially Christine and Nada, for inviting me this evening. In my life in the United States I teach comparative religions in a private high school, and this year I have been on sabbatical doing research. I miss the classroom, and I am excited for our conversation this evening. Also, my work this year has been focused on Palestinian and Israeli teachers, and I welcome the opportunity to reflect a bit on my home country.
As we think about the role of religion in United States Presidential elections, allow me to begin with a quote from the United States Bill of Rights. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Founders of the United States placed this statement in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as they recognized the diversity of religious belief within the U.S. colonies and the difficulty they would have keeping those colonies unified if they established one faith as the official religion of the new United States. After all, whose religion would it be? Would it be the Puritanism of New England, the Catholicism of Maryland, the Quakerism of Pennsylvania or the Anglicanism of Virginia? In the 1600s Europe had torn itself apart in religious wars, and the Founders felt that too close an intermingling of religion and politics was dangerous. Not only, did they reason, could it cause political instability, it also was bad for religion itself. As Thomas Jefferson argued, religious coercion “tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage.” The Founders also specified that elected officials should not be required to be of any religion. They wrote, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” At the same time, the United States was, and remains today, a very religious country. Currently 92% of Americans say they believe in God, and 65% say that religion is important in their daily lives, compared to a 38% average across the developed world. Religion plays a far larger role in political debates in the United States than it does in many other Western democracies. There thus arises in American political life a perceived tension between many citizens’ personal religiosity and their desire to maintain freedom of worship for themselves and their neighbors. This manifests itself in the way Americans think of their Presidential candidates. Each person wants a candidate who reflects his or her values. At what point does supporting a candidate who reflects one’s values, including one’s religious values, shade into applying a religious test?
In earlier times, in the age before radio, television and the Internet, many presidents’ personal religious beliefs were not as intense a subject of discussion as they are today. In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, they have become the source of political debate. In 1928 a Catholic, New York Governor Al Smith, ran for president and encountered a good deal of resistance on the basis of his religion. Some believed he would obey the Pope and not pursue the interests of the United States. This concern combined with anti-Catholic prejudice more widely, and with an hostility to immigrants. Many historians argue it was a central reason for Smith’s loss of the election.
In 1960 a second Catholic candidate ran for president and the accusation of divided loyalties arose again. Former senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts addressed the issue head-on, speaking to a group of Protestant ministers who had expressed skepticism. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.”
Some hear in such principles a test that means that religious people can’t run for president. Recently, former Senator Rick Santorum, another Catholic and a current candidate for the Republican nomination for president, critiqued Kennedy’s speech, going so far as to say it made him “sick to his stomach.” Senator Santorum argued, “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Others note, however, that government neutrality toward religion is not the same as excluding religious people from public office. President Obama, when a Senator in 2006, argued, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers…Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”
This last statement is subtle and requires some unpacking. Let’s say that a lawmaker deeply believes that, because that is God’s will, we should tax the rich more heavily and support the poor more directly. That is absolutely his right to believe that. In order to convince others in a society with many different kinds of belief, however, he cannot simply argue that redistribution of wealth is the revealed word of God. He must argue that it will benefit many, that the advantages of his plan will outweigh the disadvantages, and that it will be practical to implement. Notice the lawmaker is still a believer, motivated by his beliefs. He is speaking in a language, however, that people of many faiths or none at all can also speak.
The worry that a president will defer to his religion’s leaders rather than take the best action for the country has been raised again in this election cycle. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and at the moment the frontrunner in the Republican primary race, is a Mormon. Mormonism, a relatively new Christian denomination that began in the United States, believes in scriptures revealed in the 19th century. Most important for our discussion, however, like Roman Catholicism it has a single hierarchy. A conservative Christian pastor who supports another candidate claimed recently that Mormonism is not a true religion but a cult. Romney responded by citing the U.S. Constitution, saying, “The founders of this country went to great lengths to make sure and even put in the Constitution, that we would not choose people who represent us in government based on their religion.”
As Americans continue to evolve in their understanding of faith and the presidency, when will we see the first president from a world religion other than Christianity? The election of Barack Obama shows that common wisdom about what biases govern the typical U.S. voter can be very wrong. Still, a portion of the U.S. electorate does remain prejudiced against people of different faiths. Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments, for example, have decreased sharply but still influence some voters, particularly older voters. In the 2008 election, for example, opponents of Barack Obama tried to use the claim that he was Muslim to turn voters against him. The attempt failed. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, countered, “Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”
The United States has an increasingly diverse religious representation in government. In 2000 the Democratic vice-presidential nominee was Jewish. The first Muslim member of congress was elected in 2007, and there are now two Muslims serving in the congress. 2007 also saw the election of the first two Buddhist representatives, and a long serving congressman became the first openly atheist member. While no Hindu has yet been elected to congress, a Hindu priest has offered prayers at the opening of a Congressional session.
To summarize, then, Americans are a religious people, who have been becoming more tolerant of their fellow citizens who worship in a broad spectrum of faiths, or follow no faith at all. While some resistance remains, the number of Americans who say they would refuse to vote for an otherwise well-qualified candidate based on his religion has been in decline across the 20th and into the 21st century. From time to time specific issues with religious implications arise in presidential elections. Candidates on the political right are currently more likely to directly appeal to the religiosity of their voters than those on the political left. As Robert Putnam points out in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs magazine (and I recommend his article) this has not always been the case. For candidates across the political spectrum, acknowledging religious faith of some kind remains important, while religious exclusivism seems to be more damaging than advantageous to presidential candidates.