This is not normally a political blog, but I like to participate in the annual Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm, because church/state issues are important to me. This post is intended to be part of the 2011 swarm.
After a recent comment I made about dancing around a question rather than answering it, one of my podcast listeners wondered, jokingly, if I was considering a career in politics. I laughed and replied that politics wouldn’t know what to do with me – but that’s not entirely true. Never mind the fact that I don’t have access to the big money required to run for office these days; there’s also the matter of my Pagan religious beliefs. Our political system would know exactly what to do with someone who does not adhere to one of the “big three” monotheisms: exclude them.
Realistically, this applies to adherents of most of the “big three” as well; we have just recently elected only the second Muslim ever to be in Congress, and the idea of a Muslim running for president seems laughable in our current political climate. While there are a number of Jewish people in Congress, only one has been nominated on a major-party presidential ticket. Even under the Christian umbrella, it wasn’t so long ago that Catholics were suspected of being too beholden to the Vatican to be trusted with the presidency, and today Mormon candidates are scrutinized for their beliefs as well. Whether overtly or covertly, religion is made an issue in our political culture, to the point where it seems absurd to imagine a Pagan running for president – or even Congress – without facing opposition based on religion.
The United States Constitution stipulates, in Article VI, that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” And yet, we have religious tests all the same. In addition to the exclusion of various religious groups from serious consideration for office, when moderate or liberal Christian candidates are challenged for not being sufficiently Christian, or accused of being secretly Muslim (as if this would disqualify them), this is the imposition of a religious test for public office. When candidates for public office proclaim that they would never appoint a Muslim or an atheist to a cabinet position (which is also a public office), this is a religious test as well.
Does it make a difference that the “religious test” is not something being officially imposed by the government, but instead functions as an unofficial litmus test during campaign season? Personally, I feel that while it may not violate the letter of the Constitution, it certainly violates the spirit. When the very idea of a Pagan president, or an atheist, or anyone not Christian, seems so completely out of the question, how can we claim not to have such tests? Even to think of a president whose religion we don’t know sounds ridiculous. So I would argue that what we have is an unspoken, de facto religious test for public office.
Obviously, individuals are free to vote for candidates according to whatever criteria they choose. But the notion that a candidate’s religion should be taken, on its own, as a disqualifying mark against him or her – or, conversely, as a necessary credential for a leader – needs to be challenged whenever it is used. And seeing as we are heading into yet another presidential campaign season, I expect it will be used quite frequently, one way or the other.
Mind you, I do believe it is fair to criticize a candidate’s approach to governance even when – or especially when – that approach is rooted in religious principles. When a candidate says they will govern our secular republic according to the teachings of their religion, this runs into a different set of Constitutional problems, which also need to be addressed. Requiring our country’s leaders to steer clear of imposing their religious beliefs on others is not, in itself, a religious test for public office. (I feel the need to say this explicitly, given how some people like to claim religious persecution when they are prevented from persecuting others according to their religion.)
As for me, I have no plans to run for political office and be a Pagan test case to challenge all of this. That’s not my calling (plus there’s still the matter of big money standing in the way.) But I will be watching, this election season, for the ways in which religion is used both to praise and criticize candidates, and to establish this unspoken religious test for public office we’re not supposed to have.