Earlier this week Democratic presidential candidates congregated at a forum on religion, values and poverty sponsored by the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, and by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
While by itself this event would hardly be newsworthy, for every politician understands the necessity of at least paying lip service to the piety of most American voters, it should concern every American – religious or otherwise – the types of questions these candidates on that night were posed.
Any citizen with ambitions for dog catcher or the presidency is acutely aware that standing for public office most anywhere in America requires pledging heavenly allegiance almost as necessarily as filing the hellish paperwork. Advertising belief early is as crucial to a candidacy as gathering signatures and paying the filing fee.
Want to see your polling numbers sink even lower than those currently for President Bush? Simply let it slip that you doubt the divinity of Jesus, or the existence of God.
But no candidate, no matter how genuine their faith, should, in this nation that is while religious by choice nonetheless secular by law, be asked such personal and obnoxiously intrusive questions as: “What was the greatest sin you ever committed?”, and “Did your faith help you with your husband’s infidelity?”
Such questions are utterly inappropriate in the public arena, under the less-than-heavenly glow of media lights and cameras. Certainly within the un-surveilled sanctuary of a house of worship a candidate who would preach from the pulpit must also expect to sit in the confessional. But the increasing trend towards public interrogation of candidates on matters of faith in their private and most intimate lives crosses a line over which it will be very difficult for any present or future candidate to retreat.
After all, public interrogations of piety and faith amount to a sort of religious litmus test for public office, something, lest we forget, our Constitution in Article VI explicitly forbids.
It is one thing, more often a phony thing, for a candidate to wear their faith on their sleeve in attempt to gain political advantage. It is quite another for the faithful to invite candidates into the public arena, and then try their piety in the court of public opinion. Which candidate bore the heavier cross should not determine which candidate gains the keys to the White House.
This is not at all to say that faith does not or should not matter in this country. While America is staunchly secular, it is also resolutely religious. The great majority of Americans derive many if not most of their moral insights from their religious beliefs, and that is largely the way America has always been.
But religion and politics, while allowed to mingle, must never be permitted to marry. The awful offspring of such a marriage have perpetrated some of the worse crimes of history, and we must do everything in our power as religious Americans or secular to prevent such a union from ever taking place here.