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

Asking About a Candidate’s Religion

Bryan T. McGraw


by Bryan T. McGraw

Once upon a time in the very land around us, a strange myth had taken hold of our nation’s political scribes.  It said that religion was a relic of the past, something that modern people had or soon would put behind them – or, at the very least, not treat very seriously.  So, lo, when religion “returned” to politics in the form of a Majority, or at least a sizeable Coalition, they were greatly vexed and waxed exceedingly loquacious regarding the dangers they saw peering from behind every vestment, pew, and ten-point voting guide. 

A few voices attempted to point out that religion had never disappeared from politics or that its newfound influence was not a danger to the land, but myths are hard to break.  So it should be no surprise that we as a country remain deeply divided over religion’s proper role in democratic politics and that such division shows up most sharply in relation to candidates’ own faith commitments.  The New York Times’ Bill Keller kicked off a dust-up on just this topic with a column this summer that was by turns serious and silly where he suggested that the current crop of GOP presidential candidates answer a series of questions connected to their religious beliefs.  In truth, Keller’s splenetic mutterings are hardly worth mentioning, except that they point up a serious issue: how should voters, tasked with judging candidates’ character and policy proposals, inquire about and reflect on those candidates’ religious beliefs?

It’s tempting to say that they shouldn’t, that a person’s religious beliefs should not be subject to public scrutiny—all the better to protect religious liberties, especially of those whose traditions might seem exotic or “weird” to many.  Questions are unlikely to be asked evenhandedly and more likely deployed as means of embarrassing a candidate than eliciting important or useful information.  But that’s a mistake, and it’s a mistake precisely because it implicitly relies upon the myth I (gently) mocked above: religious faith is not some private little hobby with marginal public import.  It matters, and we as citizens should be willing to ask how someone’s faith might be expected to shape his or her decisions.  (For all of its faults, Keller’s essay got at least that part right).

But we should probably avoid the alternative extreme as well: not everything someone believes ought to be on the table for public dissection.  American society is a remarkable (if imperfect) success story in our capacity to live with one another amid deep religious differences.  Sometimes, we manage those differences through avoidance: we find ourselves in situations where the most gracious thing is to simply dodge the subject.  We should recognize that the same is true of public life as well: most any candidate is likely to have some very basic beliefs (religious or otherwise) that others will find offensive or demeaning.  Unless some belief has a real connection to a question of public import, making it a part of our public political deliberations seems unwarranted.

Ah, but there’s the rub.  Too often, even whether some subject is properly public is itself what’s at issue, and it’s unlikely that even people of good faith will always find agreement on what sorts of questions we should (and should not) ask.  Disagreements really do sometimes go “all the way down.”  But we should continue to ask, and ask about our asking, if for no other reason than to do otherwise would be to make ourselves complicit with a deservedly dying mythology. 

—Bryan T. McGraw is an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College.  He participated in the Civitas program at the Center for Public Justice in 2001.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”