Religion becoming a political divide

I am starting to get very concerned about the role that religion is playing in this presidential election. Specifically, I am becoming concerned about the emphasis that is being placed on the candidates' religion.


Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Put more simply, he is a Mormon. It goes without saying that some folks will have reservations about putting a Mormon in the White House. On the other hand, the media reported that while Mormons make up around 7 percent of Nevada's population, some 25 percent of the Republicans who participated in the Nevada caucuses were Mormon, and about 94 percent of them voted for Romney. Are Mormons going to vote for Romney because he is a Mormon?

Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein. His father, after whom he was named, was a Kenyan Muslim who was divorced from Obama's mother when the child was 2 years old. So far as I can ascertain, and despite what some groups are spreading on the internet, Obama himself has never been a practicing Muslim. For more than 20 years, he has been a member of the United Church of Christ and he describes himself as a Christian.

GIVEN THE international situation with which we deal and given the events of 9-11, it is understandable that most Americans would be very hesitant to cast their vote for someone who had ever had a connection with radical Islam, but that does not characterize Obama. But what if he were a moderate practicing Muslim? Many folks would vote against him just because of that. As things are, many people will vote for Obama because he is a practicing Christian.

Mike Huckabee's middle name must be "Evangelical," because he is almost never mentioned by the media without that adjective being associated with him or with his supporters. To be fair, though, Huckabee seems to be going out of his way to court the evangelical bloc. Most polls indicate that Huckabee is getting large percentages of the evangelical vote in the Republican primaries and caucuses. Those same polls indicate that his support among non-evangelicals is much weaker. Therefore, it seems clear that evangelical Christians are voting for Huckabee because he also is an evangelical Christian, and non-evangelicals are voting against him at least partly because is an evangelical.

During the Nov. 28 YouTube/CNN Republican debate, some questions about religion were posed to the candidates. The one that got the most press was that posed by Joseph Dearing, who held up King James Version of the Bible and asked the candidates if they believed every word of "this book." A man named Jacob asked the candidates: "If Jesus were alive today, would he be a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent?"

THE NEXT DAY on his MSNBC show Hardball, Chris Matthews said to John McCain:

"But these questions are getting very liturgical. How literal do you take the Constitution (note: Matthews meant to say "Bible" here)? Where did Jesus stand on capital punishment? I mean, this is beginning to look like what the Constitution calls a religious test and proscribes -- bans, really -- in Article 6 of the Constitution. Why are candidates for the presidency being asked religious questions?"

Here is what Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says:

"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."

It would have been a good thing had one of the candidates in that debate really believed in the Constitution enough to have the courage to say, "I'm sorry, but that question gets awfully close to applying a religious test as a qualification for the office of president, and I will not answer it." Such an answer would have added a helpful element to the conversation.

Now, let's be clear. The real meaning of Article VI is that no person is to be deemed unworthy in an official way to serve in the government because of her or his religion. No law is to be passed or no rule is to be adopted that would prohibit a Mormon, a Muslim, a liberal Christian, an evangelical Christian, a Druid, a Buddhist or an atheist from holding office because of religious affiliation. Such a requirement would be a clear violation of the Constitution, and a calamitous breach of the wall separating church and state.

It is impossible, though, to stop individual voters and blocs of voters from applying their own religious tests to candidates.

We need to be reminded that a president-elect, when sworn in, makes this oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The president pledges to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution," not one religious text or another.

I CONFESS THAT when I evaluate a candidate I consider the ways in which that candidate might be led by the great Judeo-Christian values of justice and mercy. But I also confess that I try not to be swayed by the religious label that a candidate bears. Sometime back, a church member asked me, "If you have two candidates, one of whom is a Christian and one of whom is not, should not a Christian vote for the Christian candidate rather than the non-Christian candidate?" I answered, "I can envision scenarios in which the 'non-Christian' candidate might embody 'Christian' values in his or her governing more than the 'Christian' candidate would."

It is simply asking too much to ask a great number of Americans to take religion out of the equation when they are pondering how they will cast their vote. But it is not asking too much to suggest that we should all look more at the candidates' stands on the issues that confront our nation and at the ways in which their pursuit of their policies would impact the lives of all Americans -- and, as a Christian, I must add to that "especially the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised." I can't help it -- I have read the prophets and the Gospels.

I was 5 years old in November 1963, but I remember very clearly the day when President Kennedy was killed. I grew up idolizing the martyred president. Sometime during my adolescence, I asked my father -- a high school-educated, textile-mill working Southern Baptist member of the Greatest Generation -- for whom he had voted in the 1960 presidential election. "I voted for Nixon," he said, "and I'm not ashamed of that. But I am ashamed of my reason." "What reason?" I asked. "I voted against Kennedy because he was a Roman Catholic, and I was afraid if he got elected the pope would run the country." I'm proud that my father grew enough to understand the error of his thinking.

AS I SAID, I'm worried. I'm worried that the religious pluralism that has developed from our cherished freedom of, and from, religion is becoming a source of division. I'm worried that too many of us will vote for or against this or that presidential candidate mainly because of his or her religious affiliation. I'm worried that too many candidates are playing to this or that religious constituency in order to get elected.

And I'm worried that we'll forget that whoever is elected has to be the president of all Americans.

(The writer is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta.)