On God and Politics

March/​April 2015 • Policy Report

Last year, I was on a panel discussing a provocative play by Suzanne Bradbeer, The God Game. The play’s protagonist is Tom, an agnosticleaning‐ atheist vice‐​presidential wannabe who is offered a slot on the ticket if he will falsely affirm his belief in God. Like most political candidates, Tom is convinced he can do great things for the country — but first he must lie about one of his deep‐​rooted convictions. That quandary raises several public‐​policy questions that might interest Cato readers.

First: Today’s voters seem to accept religious differences. We’ve had a Catholic president, a Mormon presidential candidate, and a Jewish vice presidential candidate. Doesn’t that belie the underlying premise of The God Game — that is, voters will reject a candidate who doesn’t profess a religious belief? According to a 2012 Gallup poll, the premise is still correct, despite evidence of increasing religious tolerance. When voters were asked if they would support a well‐​qualified presidential candidate who was an atheist, 46 percent said “No.” Comparable percentages for African‐ American, Jewish, gay, or Muslim candidates were 4, 9, 32, and 42, respectively. Apparently, voters care less about race, sexual orientation, and minority religious views (Catholic, Jewish, Mormon) than they do about belief in God. The exception — most likely for geopolitical reasons — is concern about the Muslim faith. Even that aversion is less than voter antipathy toward atheists.

Second: Politicians often dissemble to justify their ends. Obama said we could keep our health plan; Bush II equivocated about Iraq; Clinton lied about Lewinsky, Nixon about Watergate, and Johnson about Vietnam. Why should voters be even more hostile when a candidate prevaricates about religion? My best guess: Religion is a core value. Lying about such a value is more serious and reflects more on the candidate’s character than, say, lying about whether health insurance will be canceled. If the only way to get elected is to falsely claim theism, and if voters discover the deception, the end will not justify the means.

Third: Shouldn’t religion be a private matter — that is, none of the public’s business? Ordinarily, yes, but once a person becomes a candidate for national elective office, his private affairs become public. Voters demand full disclosure about religious beliefs that might have an impact on political decisions. Suppose, for example, a religion disavowed all medical care or endorsed pacifism, jihadism, racism, sexism, or homophobia. Surely, voters should know if a candidate embraces that religion and those beliefs.

Fourth: Are there constitutional issues related to the precondition in The God Game that Tom must profess religious beliefs? After all, Article VI states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That question reflects a common misconception about the nature and purpose of our Constitution. It has two primary objectives: to secure individual rights and to limit the power of government. The Constitution does not constrain candidates or political parties or voters; it’s a code of conduct for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. Importantly, in The God Game, there are no actions by government that would affect Tom’s decision to run or not. It’s up to him — shaped of course by his assessment of whether he can win and his willingness to compromise his principles.

Fifth: The Declaration speaks of unalienable rights endowed by our creator. How can that be reconciled with the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion? There’s no conflict. Several of the Framers were deists — meaning they believed in God as creator, not a God who interacts with mankind on an ongoing basis. For constitutional purposes, however, that belief is irrelevant. Our constitutional framework does not hinge on the question of whether rights come from God, nature, or some other source. The key point is, they do not come from the king. Individuals have rights, independent of and prior to government. Rights come first; then we secure those rights by delegating limited and enumerated powers to a government bound by a written Constitution. That document does not separate God from our lives; but it does separate God from government.

Historically, our political leaders have been theists — not surprisingly, because the overall population is overwhelmingly theist. But even when those leaders have actually been religious figures, such as Rev. Martin Luther King, the public‐​policy ends they sought and the justifications they advanced were secular, not religious. King did not insist that everyone should be a Christian because Christians believe in racial equality. He insisted that everyone — Christians and non‐​Christians alike — should believe in racial equality on moral and constitutional grounds.

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