Popular author and radio talk-show host Michael Medved wrote an article in the April 23, 2012 issue of USA Today dealing with religion and politics. He scolds “social conservatives who claim to revere the plain text of the Constitution [but] seem determined to ignore its prohibition on religious tests for federal office.”
Those who argue that a person’s religion should not be an issue appeal to the Constitution, in particular Article VI, paragraph 3:
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.
Like Medved, John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal organization defending religious liberties, is critical of voters who evaluate candidates on the basis of their religious views. “The Constitution is really clear. We’re not to have religious tests for office,” he states. “That’s spelled out in Article VI of the Constitution.” True enough. The problem with Medved and Whitehead’s argument is that the constitutional prohibition is directed at what the federal government can’t require. There is nothing in the Constitution that says that a voter can’t evaluate a candidate’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.
The Constitution also requires that “No person . . . shall be eligible to [the office of President] who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States” (Art. II, Sec. 1). Does this mean that a 35-year-old candidate shouldn’t be questioned about his abilities given his young age? Ronald Reagan was thought by some to be too old. He was 69 when he took office in 1981. There is no age limit set in the Constitution, yet there are a lot of people who take age into consideration when they vote.
Religion cuts both ways. Jimmy Carter ran as a “born again” candidate but governed in a way that would make any Bible believer blush. Medved rightly observes that Thomas Jefferson was said to be a “‘howling atheist’ and ‘infidel’ [who] would place ‘the seal of death . . . on our holy religion.’” The federal government in Jefferson’s day was limited, and his non-Christians beliefs were muted by a general Christian worldview that dominated at the time. His remarks on religion were mostly expressed in personal correspondence with friends.
How times have changed. The civil government has grown far beyond its constitutional beginnings and limited authority and jurisdiction. Someone who uses religion in a way to grow the State is as dangerous as an atheist who wants to grow the State. One uses the voice of God and the other uses the voice of the people (vox populi, vox dei).
The signers of the Declaration of Independence – Thomas Jefferson being one of them – recognized that God was the Creator, rights are a gift from Him to be protected by government, there are moral absolutes called “laws,” and God is the “Supreme Judge of the world.” Not only is it important that political candidates believe these fundamentals, but it’s necessary that they govern in terms of them. But without a biblical understanding on the limits of civil government, a person with a deeply held set of religious principles can be a danger to the Republic.
How many times have we heard liberals appeal to the Bible in support of the expansion of civil government? President Obama even used the words of Cain — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — to support wealth redistribution in the name of “fairness.”
Everybody is religious when it comes to politics. Even an atheist is religious. He puts his faith in the sovereign individual and the use of right reason. How does the atheist account for the legitimacy of government or its moral basis? As skeptical as Jefferson was, he believed that a proper understanding of Christianity (his understanding) resulted in liberty and science:
“The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they [the clergy] have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.”1
The religion and politics issue is more nuanced than Medved makes it out to be, especially since we’ve seen the growth of the federal government from the days of Washington and Jefferson. A good dose of religion mixed with politics might be the very thing to put the lid back on Pandora’s Box.