By Bill Leonard
Baptist News Global
“If you vote for Al Smith, [the Roman Catholic presidential candidate] you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned.” (Billy Sunday, 1928)
The election of a Catholic president would mean the end of religious freedom in America.” (W. A. Criswell, 1960)
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” (Ben Carson, 2015)
There is nothing new about overdrawn, religion-based rhetoric in American politics. Across our history, Americans have generally supported the idea of religious liberty, while granting it grudgingly to assorted individuals or movements that seem to have too much, too little, or the wrong kind of faith. This is particularly true when we prepare to elect a new president and the national “crazies” settle in.
Some want candidates to “testify,” recounting appropriate conversion stories and affirming the centrality of (Christian) faith, as essential to their presidential values. Others want a candidate’s religion kept personal, omitted from public and politicized conversation. Still others wonder if some religious views and affiliations disqualify candidates from the presidency entirely.
Abraham Lincoln’s critics wondered if he had any religion at all. Twentieth century Catholic candidates Al Smith and John Kennedy struck fear into a largely Protestant nation.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter’s born-again-Baptist assertions left many voters right and left concerned about a Sunday school teacher in the Oval Office.
Barak Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign raised questions about his membership in the “wrong kind” of church with the “wrong kind” of pastor (Jeremiah Wright), and the enduring possibility that he is a Muslim. (In asserting her belief that Obama was not Muslim, Hillary Clinton also added, “as far as I know.”)
In 2012 Mitt Romney’s lifelong Mormon affiliation led many pastors to claim that he was “not a Christian.”
This year, Marco Rubio observed that Donald Trump probably hasn’t read the Bible, “because he’s not in it.”
While this year’s jam-packed candidate pool reflects no discernible Muslim, the dangers of a future Islamic president have exploded on the campaign trail. Expanding his recent diatribe, Ben Carson observed: “Now, if someone has a Muslim background, and they’re willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have, and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion, then of course they will be considered infidels and heretics, but at least I would then be quite willing to support them.”
Yet Carson gladly offered support to a Kentucky magistrate whose conscience required her to place her religion above “our Constitution” regarding marriage laws. One person’s conscience is another cancellation.
Thankfully, some candidates actually referenced “our Constitution,” article 6, paragraph 3, that: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Are the words “no religious test shall ever be required” self-evident enough for us? From a constitutional standpoint religion or lack thereof is not a test of any presidential candidate.
Clearly, religious credentialing and innuendo is nothing new in presidential politics. What is new, however, is that these Christianity-infused invectives may reinforce the decision of some Americans to desert organized religion, especially churches, altogether. Indeed, many American Christians seem intent on evangelizing their fellow citizens right out of the church and into the ranks of the “nones.”
The Pew Research Center defines “religious ‘nones’” as “people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular.’” That group, Pew reports “now make up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. adult population.” So while Christians remain the religious majority in the U.S. at 71 percent (down from 78 percent), almost one in four Americans claim no religious affiliation. And we Christians seem to be more than willing to expand their numbers as fast as possible.
We can’t seem to figure out that what sounds like conviction to us, whether left or right of center, may sound like bigotry, or downright meanness, in the public square. We maintain a certain selective literalism in our use of the Bible, declaring various moral and doctrinal non-negotiables, while ignoring other texts that challenge our own ideologies, theologies, or political commitments.
If our religious traditions are indeed transforming or inspiring, they are also broken and problematic. We Christians are forced to acknowledge the church’s questionable political and inquisition-oriented history before we moralize pontificate too quickly or loudly; today’s Jews continue to struggle over tensions between their own brave witness and their treatment of Palestinians; Catholics have a popular pope and a shattered reputation of sexual abuse; Muslims will be a long time redeeming their history from the bloody swords of those whose brutal actions now taint an entire movement.
It appears that the “nones” are listening to all this; and, rightly or wrongly, they don’t like what they’re hearing. We’d better worry about that, no matter who is elected president.
Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.