Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Should We Care about a Candidate’s Religion?

Kevin R. den Dulk


June 29, 2012

By Kevin R. den Dulk

My extended family routinely violates the social norm against talking about religion and politics around the dinner table. But we’re generally an affable bunch, and it’s rare that someone leaves the table with more than a minor singe. So it was intriguing when the temperature of a recent discussion quickly rose to uncomfortable levels. The spark occurred when several family members insisted that Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith ought to weigh against him in the presidential contest. Their basic argument: If we affirm that religion impacts politics, then conscientious voters should assess the religion of our politicians – and Romney’s religion is too unconventional to merit a “plus” mark in a voter’s calculus. 

As a political scientist, neither the argument nor the passion behind it should have surprised me. While Article Six of the U.S. Constitution forbids government from applying “religious tests” as a condition of any public office, citizens remain entirely free to apply their personal tests of religiosity in the privacy of the voting booth. And from the Adams-Jefferson contest of 1800 to the present day, voters in the United States have exercised that freedom with little hesitation. 

Some patterns emerge in this electoral history. Consider, for example, that there is perhaps no more durable fact than that atheists have extremely long odds in election campaigns. Despite our increasing religious pluralism, nearly two-thirds of Americans still say that they would be less likely to vote for a generic candidate who is atheist, the worst showing of any category of religious identity. What’s more, partisanship doesn’t overwhelm that percentage: Well over half claim they wouldn’t vote for an otherwise-competent candidate of their own party who also happens to be atheist. It’s no wonder that only one member of the current U.S. Congress, Peter Stark (D – Calif.), openly rejects belief in a supreme being.

Dig a little deeper, however, and one finds that voters are not merely concerned that a candidate believes in God; they also want to know if a candidate has the correct beliefs about God. As my co-authors and I note in our book on religion and the 2008 presidential election, the electorate has a “hierarchy of religious preferences.” Atheists occupy the bottom position, followed by Muslims and then – a la my family’s conversation – Mormons (Jews, evangelicals, and Catholics, respectively, round out the hierarchy). In a variety of surveys, about a quarter of the respondents say they would be “uncomfortable” or “less likely” to vote for a Mormon. Some fellow political scientists have recently described this attitude as a “stained glass ceiling” for Romney. (Perhaps a similar ceiling exists for Barack Obama, at least among those who see his former Chicago church and its pastor as too controversial.)

So with these patterns in mind, let’s return to my family squabble: Ought the religious identity of candidates matter to vote choice? 

In one sense, of course it should matter.  Religion shapes basic ideas about morality and human interrelations, and these basic ideas inform everyday decisions made by political actors. It stands to reason that democratic citizens might want to know how a candidate’s religion will affect his or her decision-making. 

But that doesn’t mean that candidates’ unconventional – even heretical – beliefs are automatically disqualifying. The starting point, it seems to me, has to be the simple assumptions that governments are not churches and public office is not the pastorate. Accordingly, when we assess candidates’ beliefs for the purpose of voting, we shouldn’t care whether they would pass a theological examination at our favorite seminary. Rather, we ought to examine a candidate’s beliefs, religious or otherwise, for what they tell us about how he or she is likely to answer key questions about governing. Do they see both promise in and limits to government? Are they humbled by the moral imperatives and ambiguities of statecraft and policy-making? Do they have a strong sense of public justice? While candidates may not recognize Christ’s lordship over the universe, they may still answer these questions in ways a Christian voter can endorse.

—Kevin R. den Dulk is the Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence Chair in Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

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