Senator Obama and the religion of would-be Presidents

I ought to make this clear at the outset: I do not participate in politics.  As an article of my faith, I do not vote in elections.

OK, that said, I have found the discussions concerning Senator Barrack Obama and his pastor Mr. Jeremiah Wright absolutely fascinating on a number of levels.  Some of the commentary has been simply crazy, and some of it has been sharply insightful.  As usual, I believe that James Taranto is as sharp as ever in his “Best of the Web” commentary at the WSJ’s online Opinion Journal, and Peggy Noonan’s recent article about how Mr. Wright’s words do not bother her are an interesting perspective (with dash of “adult” words here and there, so be forewarned).

But one of the thoughts that has fascinated me is a question that seems to be coming up more in this election than in other recent elections: Does a presidential candidate’s religion have any legitimate impact on how fit he is for the job?  And the related but not identical question: Should voters consider a presidential candidate’s religion in their decision?

Senator Obama is currently suffering under a burden of associations between him and the views of his long time pastor, Mr. Wright.  Governor Mitt Romney was compelled to take great pains to address the effect that his Mormon faith had on the way it influenced voters’ perception of him.  Much ado was made by many concerning the fundamentalist-styled beliefs of former pastor Mike Huckabee.  Many are beginning to discuss more and more whether or not it would be a concern if a President of the United States were an atheist or a follower of Islam — with some, perhaps, feeling confusedly guilty when the thought of such possibilities causes them concern.

Are the religions of our politicians legitimate areas of concern for voters?

I think that if the word “religion” is to mean anything at all, then it must be something worth knowing, discussing, and debating in trying to understand a person.  A real religion (as opposed to a “religious label,” which is essentially meaningless) is intimately connected with one’s worldview — indeed, part and parcel of the source of that worldview.  In many ways, it is not possible to separate the consideration of a person’s religious convictions from his “secular” convictions, because convictions are virtually always religious in nature.  For a man to hold a great number of deeply believed convictions that were at odds with his religion — how much sense would that make?

(Of course, by “religion” I speak here of a man’s true, chosen faith, and not of the religion he attaches his name to when the lights are on and attendance is being taken in the pews.  In this light, Mr. Tony Blair would have been considered a “Catholic” for quite some time as opposed to being a “recent convert.”  A man in this world may , for example, be simultaneously Jewish and an atheistic Darwinist.  Here, “Jewish” describes his cultural background, perhaps, but his religion would be one of Naturalism or Darwinism.)

I would think that if a man’s religion is one deeply believed in and sincerely retained, then the tenets, doctrines, practices, and goals of that religion should be front and center in any discussion of his readiness to lead a nation.  His religion, if not well known to everyone, should be made well known to everyone.  Just hearing that his religion is a “big one” with “lots of ordinary people” in it should be no excuse not to put it under the microscope — those folks who say that the “major religions” are pretty much the same are folks who have never really seriously looked at those religions (or their countless subdivisions).

Even if a candidate is not a staunch follower of his professed religion, there are important questions worth asking…  In what areas does he follow it absolutely?  In what areas does he seek liberality?  What considerations cause him to choose fidelity or license in his relationship to his religion’s doctrines?

What is the candidate’s view of the book at the heart of his religion?  Does he believe that the Bible is inerrant?  Does he think it is full of wisdom, but some mistakes as well — or perhaps hopelessly out of date?  Wouldn’t answers to these questions, explained in detail and without obfuscation (what an obfuscating word!), be enormously enlightening?

Shouldn’t a “hardcore atheist” voter care passionately about whether or not his future president is “delusional”?  And shouldn’t a “hardcore evangelical” voter care passionately about whether or not his future president is “godless”?  Given the worldviews of both voters, shouldn’t the worldview of the person running for president be an issue of incredible importance, worthy of public analysis and discussion?

When considering a person’s worthiness to lead an entire nation — in fact, the most powerful nation on earth today, however tenuously that title might be held as time moves on — I would think that it would be in people’s interest to know that person inside and out, as thoroughly as humanly possible.  And in doing so, I can’t fully fathom how religion isn’t focused on more extensively and more explicitly.

I would think that whether or not he truly believes that ancient Israelites settled in the Americas and built ancient civilizations would be a fair question for Mr. Romney, as would questions on other Mormon doctrines.  Similarly, I would think that Mr. Obama should be actively willing to discuss in detail his stance on the tenets of Black Liberation Theology and the beliefs of James Hal Cone, or Mr. Huckabee should be willing to address in detail what role he believes laws and statues given in the Old Testament should play in the laws and statues of a modern nation like the U.S.

If a man’s faith is a fundamental factor in determining who the man really is and what he ultimately stands for, shouldn’t it take center stage in days like these — or at the very least share some significant portion of center stage?

Perhaps it is because everyone “knows” that for most politicians their “religion” is nothing more than a means to an end — a button they can pin on that will make voters say in their hearts, “Hey, he’s like me!”  Perhaps this is why a candidate’s religion seems to “matter” only to the degree that it seems different than the “major flavors” most of us are familiar with, however vaguely.  And in those cases, candidates have a choice: deny that they are really that different, assert that the differences are not really a source of concern, or explain why the differences make him even more suited to the job.

Anyway, I’m sure that the religious beliefs of Mr. Obama or of his long time pastor and (former?) friend Mr. Wright are being heatedly and publicly discussed by many mostly out of desire for political profit, though I do not think this is the case for everyone who does so.  And, again, I do not participate in politics and I do not vote due to my religious convictions, so in a real sense I do not have (as we’d say in Texas) a dog in this fight during this election year (though I recognize that whatever dog is elected will determine the brand of dog food I have to eat for the next four years).  But I will continue to watch with fascination as an aspect of a national leader’s worldview goes under appropriate scrutiny, all the while hoping that the worldviews of the others get equal time under the public microscope.

8 thoughts on “Senator Obama and the religion of would-be Presidents

  1. Dear Mr. Smith,

    Boy, have you opened a can of worms with this one. It will be interesting to see who bites (and how hard).

    In effect, you’re challenging an assumption made by our political system, that a man’s religious beliefs are not a test of his suitability for public office. This is part of what Thomas Jefferson meant (in a letter) by “a wall of separation between church and state”. The underlying idea of course was not “freedom from religion”, but “freedom of religion” — that is, keeping one religious worldview from being imposed as a “state church”. Anybody who doubts that this is the intent of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment should look up its acknowledged predecessor, the Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. The latter even includes Jefferson’s naive rationalistic justification that “the truth of our religion” would win out in the open marketplace of ideas, if only the civil government would stay out of the way of public debate.

    There are a lot of problems with this way of thinking. First, it is not so much that “convictions are virtually always religious in nature”, but that convictions are indeed always metaphysical by nature — there is no such thing as metaphysical neutrality. Atheism is as much a metaphysical worldview as theism. Second, “freedom of religion” should include tolerance of non-monotheistic worldviews from Buddhism to paganism to atheism. James Madison, at least, seemed to realize this in principle. But such “freedom” carries the seeds of its own destruction, because 1) not all worldviews are equally truthful or helpful (or even equally valid logically speaking), 2) in this present evil world, truth will not win out over error simply because it’s given the freedom to be heard; and 3) metaphysics involves the supernatural basis of one’s relationships with God, man and the natural world, and thus these relationships cannot be separated from each other.

    Essentially, the Founding Generation unwittingly tried to establish a nation on Christian ethics apart from Christian government. The Ten Commandments are the foundation not for a republic, but for a theocracy — which is the one thing they didn’t want, given the historical abuse of “the divine right of kings” and the imposition of false religions by force. But their overreaction to ersatz theocracies gave us their heirs another set of problems to deal with. Some of them happen to be running for President; another actually holds the office. 🙂

  2. Howdy, Mr. Wheeler, and thanks.

    I would say that we do not disagree on the nature of convictions. I tend to avoid the use of the word “metaphysics” in such statements in favor of the word “religion” only because the line is a bit artificial at times in my opinion. I do find that “metaphysics” is a better choice in a number of circumstances, though, as it is a less “charged” word (thus, often it can be easier to convince an atheist that he holds metaphysical assumptions than it is to convince him he holds religious assumptions, even though in practice the difference between the two is virtually nil).

    As for establishing a state religion or a religious test, I understand the American abhorrence to such a concept, and what I have said above, in reality, is nothing of the sort. It would, however, come across that way to many, and thus such discussions are, all the more, distasteful. But I still think they are rational, and do not violate the letter or spirit of Jeffersonian religious liberality in government — whether the true version of it or its most common modern twist.

    As for the founders trying to “establish a nation on Christian ethics apart from Christian government,” I agree with your conclusion. We have been living on an account of moral and ethical capital deposited by our forefathers, but we continue making withdrawals without depositing any fresh funds, so to speak. Eventually, the funds are going to be depleted.

    A nation needs a set of ethics to survive — standards by which some actions can be declared “right” and some actions “wrong.” The problem, inevitably, is that someone asks the very legitimate question: “Says who?”

    Without the right answer to that question, the house begins to crumble — an inevitable fate for houses built on sand instead of Rock.

  3. Hi Mr. Smith,

    You wrote, “As for establishing a state religion or a religious test, I understand the American abhorrence to such a concept, and what I have said above, in reality, is nothing of the sort. It would, however, *come across* that way to many…”

    Perhaps there is a *reason* why it would “come across” so? 🙂 For the moment we ask how someone’s worldview will affect his policies as a statesman, aren’t we asking *of necessity* whether his worldview (whether in theory or in practice) should be used as a test of his fitness for office? Even if one is perfectly consistent with his own worldview, if that worldview is in error, then some of his administrative decisions will be in error and people will suffer accordingly. Many people seem to be waking up to that fact, although it seems to have taken them over two centuries to do it. That’s why they’re increasingly pushing for statesmen that hold their own worldviews (which, of course, they believe to be correct). But the only logical outcome of this trend (which, again, many now realize and some push for) is that *someone’s* worldview will become the *de facto* “state religion” — even if that worldview is relativism (for “not to decide, is to decide”).

    I respectfully submit that in this area among others, the Founding Generation tried to have it both ways (or in more Orwellian vocabulary, were guilty of doublethink however naively); and we are now reaping the inevitable backlash. But we Americans (like the deceived in Satan’s world generally) are so used to believing two contradictory premises at once that it’s hard to see through the contradiction even after we’re called out of the world.

    So on the one hand (if I understand the history right), the Founding Generation allowed that a statesman can have (in theory or in practice) any worldview he wants, so long as it doesn’t interfere with his job as a statesman. But there’s no way he can do his job as a statesman apart from his worldview; without a worldview, human beings can’t think or act rationally at all. On the other hand, the Founding Generation assumed that one or another sectarian Christian, or at worst a deistic, worldview would be held by American statesmen, so that right decisions would be made vis-a-vis at least the last Six Commandments (and as needed, one to three of the first Four). That meant that no, a statesman can’t have just any worldview he wants. So which is it? Are we to be self-defeating relativists, or insist on absolute values, including absolute ethics (you’ll see why I make that distinction shortly)? And if the latter, then why not make all Ten Commandments the foundation of our ethics, rather than just six to nine of them? For all of them affect what one does as a statesman.

    It gets worse. Suppose that genuine Christian ethics (what is good: 1. justice, 2. mercy and 3. faith, in their genuine biblical definitions) were the foundation of the nascent United States. That means everyone would agree on 1. all Ten Commandments, 2. the need for Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, and 3. the Divine promises that follow from these. Suppose too that everyone agreed as to 6. Who decides what those ethics are and through whom He works humanly to enforce them. Would that have been enough? No, because that covers only four of the seven principles or absolute values of God’s government (see Website link). We haven’t ensured that 1.2.3. ethics and 6. direction will be enforced by humans out of 7. love; and republicanism by its very structure corrupts the simple, hierarchical, political or relational principles of 4. cooperation among peers, 5. support from below and even 6. the direction from above we allegedly hold to be valid. Partisan voting and political checks and balances alone ensure that corruption. No longer are statesmen appointed on the basis of merit, but elected according to special interests; and so once again there is a contradiction (for theoretically they are made accountable to the people as well as to God, so that if God didn’t act to stop evil men, the people could).

    *At best*, such a body politic (whether civil or religious, like the American Presbyterian Church I came out of) will end up like the Church of Laodicea as described in Revelation 3: lukewarm, materialistic, self-satisfied and short-sighted. *Why* I believe this is a certainty takes more explanation than I can submit here and now. I’ll just end by submitting that in general, republics die of ennui (if something stronger doesn’t kill them first). The U.S. won’t escape that truth by wishful thinking.

    שבת שלום
    יוחנן רכב

  4. P.S. and N.B.: values 4.5.6 may be summarized by Paul’s maxim of “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (taking relative rank into account as well in the following verses).

  5. Howdy, again, Mr. Wheeler —

    Without placing an imprimatur on your seven principles as you formulate them, let me say that I agree with the idea you are expressing. The Founding Fathers set up the best system they could think of, but it is, in the end, self-defeating. They were able to set it up as they did due to a (generally) common set of working assumptions that were held at the time that allowed them liberality in certain guidelines. But that set of assumptions is simply not common anymore, and the necessity of those assumptions (or better ones with similar benefits) is becoming clearer.

    As for my comments about a religious test, I spoke too strongly when I said “nothing of the sort,” since many approaches to candidate evaluation could be considered, ultimately, a religious test — even approaches that were seemingly secular or non-religious in nature.

    What I was thinking when I wrote was that profound public discussions of the tenets of a candidate’s sincerely held faith — especially in the “religious cafeteria” environment of our nation — do not constitute a violation of the prohibition against religious tests in the U. S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 3).

    Thanks for your comments, as usual, and have a good Sabbath —
    Wallace Smith

  6. Cer Vive

    The only thing that blows all of your suppositions to the wind is the “fact” that these same men of the Founding Generation all with lofty held religious and political views were hyprocrites through and through by the simple and morally indefensible fact that they were participants in the most horrific holocaust that the world still refuses to acknowledge, the sale and forced enslavement of millions of humanity!

    So religion was an expediant way to justify enslaving millions of men, women and children, monetary gain was the overt purpose and politics was the way to enforce it.

    Therefore, to have so-called religion is not a gauge of, nor a guarantee that one will behave in a way that any two people will deem acceptable!!!

    The only thing that provided hope for the future after the “Founding Generation” set down the laws to govern this constitutional republic, is the fact, whether by design or accident, the Constitution provides in it’s Bill Of Rights protection against facism and religious zealots for generations to come if the “people” are not intentionally “dummied down”. Because we no longer have a “free press”. Pundits serving the corporate elite, are skillful in spinning a “lie” making it appear to be truth, thereby, undermining the very foundation of liberty.

  7. Greetings, Cer Vive, and thanks for writing. Let me try and get across here some things you seem to have missed.

    This post did not say that we should require a candidate for president to be a “religious person.” It said that a candidate’s religion should be not only fair game for discussion, but also that it is almost a necessary element in evaluating his fitness for the job, regardless of a voter’s perspective (atheist, Presbyterian, Wiccan, what have you).

    Even taking your point of view of things, far from “blow[ing] all of [my] suppositions to the wind,” you validate my point of view completely. So, thanks! 🙂

    Yes, religion was used by some to justify the horrors of the slave trade, however, it was also religion (or, men motivated by religion) that eventually abolished the slave trade — not some sort of humanism or universal respect for human rights. Men of character such as William Wilberforce and John Woolman made abolishing slavery their life’s cause due to their Biblically-based religious convictions.

    Religion may have been an “expedient way to justify” slavery, as you say, but it also seems to have provided the only moral force powerful enough to end it. [Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God has a wonderfully brief but helpful discussion of this on pp.62-65, and reading it might temper some of your apparent bitterness.]

    Given that religion can be used as a superficial cover for evil, as you say, or as that which inspires the removal of a great evil, all the more isn’t it in every voter’s interest to discuss openly and vigorously and directly the true, deeply held religious convictions of a candidate? Your “no gauge/guarantee” point is true, which, again, only validates what I am saying in this post. Labels mean nothing. Substance is everything. And substance doesn’t come in soundbites or in bits of text at the bottom of the cable news screens.

    Perhaps you did not read this post very carefully, or perhaps I communicated my ideas poorly. Regardless, I hope you will reread it and come to a better understanding of the point I tried to make, however poorly I may have made it, because it is clear that you currently do not understand what I was saying.

    As for your feelings about the “Founding Generation,” the press, pundits, the Bill of Rights, religious zealots, et al., please forgive me for not commenting, as (1) they are outside the scope of this post, and (2) I don’t see a lot of benefit in having that conversation here.

    Thanks for writing, Cer Vive, and if you choose to reread the post so that you better understand what I am trying to say, please feel free and write again.

    Best regards,
    Wallace Smith

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