Does a President's Faith Matter?

Just a year ago, the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog scolded Americans for apparently caring too much about President Obama's religious practices and beliefs, or lack thereof.  In a piece rhetorically asking the question they were more than happy to answer, "Does Your President's Faith Matter?," Post writer Elizabeth Tenety opened by citing the left's favorite constitutional clause: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" (Art. VI, sect. 3).

It was the same refrain Americans heard during the 2008 presidential campaign when Sean Hannity went public with some revealing information about President Obama's spiritual adviser and minister of 20 years, the racist, anti-American radical named Jeremiah Wright. 

Liberal commentators and leftist media types around the country fell all over themselves in an attempt to downplay any significance or relevance Obama's spiritual views might have on his character or leadership.  In his movie Media Malpractice, independent filmmaker John Ziegler hilariously exposed CNN's Anderson Cooper dismissing the importance of the Wright controversy 12 times in one short segment.

But fast-forward to today, introduce a handful of conservative Christians into the Republican primary, and be amazed at how quickly the spiritual beliefs become relevant.

Just one year after touting the constitutional prohibition against religious tests for federal officials, the Washington Post's "On Faith" feature was wondering if Texas Governor Rick Perry should be "judged by the religious company he keeps."  Daily Beast/Newsweek writer Michelle Goldberg took time to alert the country to the possibility that both Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann might subscribe to "a theocratic strain of Christian fundamentalism known as Dominionism."  Yes, no doubt the man who recently proclaimed his desire to make "Washington, D.C. as irrelevant in your life as possible" will be instituting federally mandated baptisms in the National Mall's reflecting pond if elected.

But perhaps the most glaring example of the left's Tarsus Road conversion on the issue of religious tests comes from the New York Times' Bill Keller, who actually produced a questionnaire for candidates (well, the Republican ones anyway) to fill out.  After suggesting that a belief in Christian doctrine was equivalent to believing that space aliens walk among us, Keller attempted to justify his religious exam by writing, "This year's Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life -- and to get over them. We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans."

And though I do wonder where this spiritually inquisitive side to liberals like Keller was when Obama's ears were being filled with black liberation theology, I have little interest in focusing merely on the hypocrisy.  There's just no sport left in pointing out the inconsistency of the left.

More importantly, I think this is an opportunity to find common ground.  I actually agree with Mr. Keller and all these newly awakened, faith-conscious liberals: a person's religious beliefs do matter when he or she runs for public office.  Those beliefs tell us more about one's judgment, values and integrity than perhaps anything else.  Somehow pretending they are to be off-limits for voters seeking to make an informed choice about who they want to lead them is, and always has been, absurd.

It's one of the reasons I have been so agitated by the contextual abuse of the "No Religious Test" ban by liberals for several decades.  The point of the ban was never to bar the people from considering the spiritual merits of a candidate before casting their vote.  Indeed, several of those who endorsed the ban had authored religious test oaths for their own state governments.  The federal ban was enacted, just like so many other prohibitions in our founding documents, to prevent the encroachment of the national government into affairs belonging to the states or the people.

In other words, the job of judging whether a candidate's spiritual health is acceptable to hold office is yours, not the feds'.  In the late 18th century, Theophilus Parsons, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, explained it this way: "No man can wish more ardently than I do that all our public offices may be filled by men who fear God and hate wickedness; but it must remain with the electors to give the government that security."

What that means is that Mr. Keller, Michelle Goldberg, and Anderson Cooper, as well as you and I, can each have our own completely constitutional religious tests for candidates.  If Keller denies his vote to someone because that person believes in a literal 6-day creation of Earth, it's his right.  And if you deny yours to someone because he worships Allah or embraces black liberation theology, it's your prerogative. 

This has always been the appropriate understanding of religious tests.  It's nice to see the left finally getting it.

Peter is a public high school government teacher and radio talk show host in central Indiana.  Email, visit, or like him on Facebook.