The (civil) religion test
Religion & Liberty Online

The (civil) religion test

Commentators call it “The Religion Test.” What does it mean when the Constitution says there should be no religious test for holding office in the United States? Historically it has plainly meant that no candidate, be they a Quaker, a Baptist, a Pentecostal or a Mormon can be barred from office because of their religion. The question is once again on the table with the serious candidacy of Mitt Romney for the presidency. And many who are concerned about Romney’s faith are evangelicals. There is a strange joining of prejudice here as the secular left seems to agree, to some extent at least, with some in the religious right.

It is fair to ask a candidate where they stand on school vouchers and abortion questions but what about their interpretations of the Bible? Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, recently challenged some of Joseph Smith’s more outrageous doctrinal beliefs by suggesting that he was obviously a “con man.” Since Mitt Romney is a Mormon Weisberg wants to know if he really believes what Smith taught since if he does then Weisberg does not want him to run the country. Christian commentator and talk-show host, Hugh Hewitt, calls this kind of response “unashamed bigotry.” Is it?

Romney himself speaks of people using “caricatures that pick some obscure aspect of [one’s] faith . . . and assume it was the central element.” Make no mistake about it, many evangelicals are uncomfortable with voting for a Mormon. The issue intrigues me since the last time we had this kind of discussion was in 1960 when evangelicals were not yet ready to vote for a Roman Catholic. My own pastor told us that a vote for Jack Kennedy was “a vote for the papacy.” That was enough to scare many of the faithful into a vote for Nixon even though they were Southern Democrats.

Mormonism is viewed as a cult by many Christians. I am not thrilled with the common use of the term cult but I am firmly persuaded that Mormonism is not orthodox, confessional, apostolic Christianity. In 2001 the Vatican even ruled that Mormon baptism was not Christian baptism, an interpretation I also share. But should this matter in our choice of a president?

Very simply put, I think it all depends on the particular person. In Romney’s case he is the only one of the front-runners who is still married to his first wife and who has a role-model family. But what a person is, his actions and views, matter deeply with regard to his capacity to lead and serve, or at least they should. Does a Mormon have the intellectual seriousness to lead the country? Some in the secular left think Romney cannot pass such a test simply because he is a Mormon. Hugh Hewitt warns evangelicals that this kind of bias is double-edged and points at them just as much as at Mormons. Theology, Hewitt insists, must not become a “test” for the oval office.

The interesting thing here is that Romney’s role models for going forward have to be Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, who both argued for a deeply felt religious faith that did not need to be tightly defined. Romney, following Ike’s approach, has said, “I think the American people want a person of faith to lead the country. I don’t think Americans care what brand of faith someone has.” Ike once said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

We call this kind of faith civil religion. It has absolutely nothing to do with real Christian faith or the proper role of the church and its missional relationship to the kingdom of Christ. But it seems to have a limited role in our particular society, so long as it doesn’t turn faith into sheer mush and nonsense, which it can and sometimes has done. In our present context, where a growing percentage of folks want no mention of faith in public at all, there is a place for such civil religion to counterbalance the secularist assault on the freedom of faith expression. But in the end civil religion will never profoundly shape or change the nation. It is a kind of cultural expression of general religion that makes it possible for all faith, including real faith, to be expressed in charitable and civil ways. It is nothing more and nothing less as I see it.

There are two Buddhists and a Muslim in the U. S. House of Representatives now. Americans are clearly more diverse than ever before. I personally think it is time to retire the “religion test” as a litmus standard for the presidency. It is not time, however, to retire the character test. These two questions are not necessarily related. How will a man act when faced with broadly moral questions that determine his leadership? I hope that question always remains on the table but increasingly I think it is also being lost. Maybe this debate will put it back on the table in a positive way.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at “encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening.”

John Armstrong

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."