I've argued before that religious beliefs have no place in politics. (See here, here, and here.) This isn't the same as saying that religious people can't be politically active. Heck, if that were the case the vast majority of American citizens would be apolitical.
I just feel that when it comes to policy-making, elected officials should offer up good reasons for why they want to do X rather than Y. Then those who disagree with that choice can engage in a rational debate rather than being met with a faith-based "just because."
Pastor Robert Jeffress has a different point of view.
And even though I find most of his arguments in "Why a candidate's faith matters" unconvincing, I have to give Jeffress credit for being a straightforward, honest, engaging advocate for his Christian religion. (Jeffress has taken heat for calling Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith a "cult," which of course it is -- along with every other religion, including mainstream Christianity).
On a recent episode of his HBO "Real Time" program, Bill Maher interviewed Jeffress. I found the pastor eminently likable, even as my churchless psyche found his fundamentalist attitudes decidedly unappealing.
In a column that was published in the Washington Post, Jeffress said:
Interestingly, John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and co-author of the Federalist Papers, thought a candidate’s religious beliefs should be a primary consideration in voting. Jay wrote, “It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” According to Jay, preferring a Christian candidate is neither bigoted nor unconstitutional.
Second, discussion of a candidate’s faith is relevant. During a time of rising unemployment, falling home prices and massive deficits, it is easy to relegate religion as an irrelevant topic. Yet our religious beliefs define the very essence of who we are. Any candidate who claims his religion has no influence on his decisions is either a dishonest politician or a shallow follower of his faith.
...Conservatives spent most of the 2008 election calling for an investigation of Barack Obama’s religious beliefs in relationship to his membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church. Did he embrace the views of his pastor? Again, a fair question because no religion I’m familiar with allows for a separation of faith from behavior. The question is not whether personal spiritual beliefs shape a politician’s values and policies, but what spiritual beliefs mold those values and policies.
Well, I wish this wasn't the case, because I'd much prefer that our nation's policies be based on facts and values that aren't contaminated by religious dogma. As noted above, when people are unable to offer up solid reasons for why X is preferable to Y, debate quickly degenerates into a "my weird belief is better than your weird belief" exchange that is inimical to open-minded discussion.
I have to admit, though, that Jeffress is telling it like it is.
The United States is a deeply religious nation, god damn it! Atheists and agnostics are a tiny minority of voters. It's difficult to imagine someone non-religious being elected president, or any leader of our country failing to end a State of the Union speech with "And may God bless the United States of America."
So my fallback position is to reluctantly accept that religious values are going to be part of our political discourse. Given that fact, I'll agree with Pastor Jeffress' contention that discussion of a candidate's faith is relevant.
Back in 2007 I said, "Questioning a politician's religious belief isn't unconstitutional." Indeed, it is essential so long as candidates embrace other-worldly beliefs that affect their preferred policy prescriptions. Here's an excerpt from that blog post:
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.