In a recent column, "An Overdose of Public Piety," Charles Krauthammer gets the issue of religion in politics partly right and partly wrong.
That's pretty good for Krauthammer, because usually I find myself disagreeing with his conservative world view. But in this piece he appropriately decries how Republican presidential candidates, like Mitt Romney, feel that the only source of genuine inspiration for "values voters" is religious belief.
Romney has been faulted for not throwing at least one bone of acknowledgment to nonbelievers in his big religion speech last week. But he couldn't, because the theme of the speech was that there was something special about having your values drawn from religious faith. Indeed, faith is politically indispensable. "Freedom requires religion," Romney declared, "just as religion requires freedom.
But this is nonsense -- as Romney then proceeded to demonstrate in that very same speech. He spoke of the empty cathedrals in Europe. He's right about that: Postwar Europe has experienced the most precipitous decline in religious belief in the history of the West. Yet Europe is one of the freest precincts on the planet. It is an open, vibrant, tolerant community of more than two dozen disparate nations living in a pan-continental harmony and freedom unseen in all previous European history.
However, Krauthammer also says that it's wrong to question a candidate about his or her religion. He decried a questioner at the Republican CNN/YouTube debate who held up a Bible and asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?"
Krauthammer considers that the candidates should have replied, "None of your damn business." Actually, it is.
It's every voter's business, every citizen's business, every person on Earth's business – because each of these guys wants to be the president of the United States, with tremendous influence over national and world policies.
Many of the candidates say that religion is the most important thing in their lives, that it guides their every waking moment, that they look to their faith for guidance in matters large and small.
Well, then, I want to know what sort of religious beliefs would influence you if, god forbid, you should beat out the Democratic candidate next November. I want to know if you do indeed believe every word in the Bible: if you think that creationism is true and evolution false; if homosexuality is a sin; if prostitutes should be stoned and slavery is OK.
Krauthammer says that the U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for office. Yes, it does. The founders of this country didn't want belonging to a particular religion to be a requirement for being elected.
However, the framers of the Constitution didn't intend religion to be off limits when considering a candidate's qualifications. The Republican presidential candidates, though, want to have it both ways.
They bring up their religious beliefs at every opportunity. Then when someone asks them to answer some specifics about those beliefs, such as whether every word in the Bible is to be taken literally, they're offended that this oh-so-personal aspect of their lives is being brought out for public scrutiny.
Well, if you don't want your religious belief scrutinized, keep it to yourself. If you're running for office, say "I'm a religious person, but my beliefs won't have any impact on how I go about deciding political or policy questions."
If you can't say that, then you've got to expect some serious questioning about what sort of unsubstantiated, subjective, and unscientific world view is going to support your decisions if you're elected.
Will Zeus guide your thoughts and actions? Or God? How about Jesus? And how will you know what your divine source of inspiration requires of you? Do you pray? Study a holy book? Hear messages from above in your head?
These are important and valid questions. I just wish they were asked more often at press conferences and debates.