No Religious Tests

By Diana Butler Bass 11-30-2007

I couldn't help but be struck by a bizarre similarity in two back-to-back events this week: the YouTube/CNN Republican forum and the swearing in of Pakistan's President Musharaf broadcast by NPR. Although worlds apart, both demonstrated what happens when religion and politics mix in a less-than-productive way-the insistence on religious tests for holding office.

In the case of President Musharaf, he took the oath of office to a country with Islam as the state religion by swearing that he is a Muslim, upholding the oneness of God, and pledging allegiance to Allah. If we had formal religious tests for office holders in the U.S., this would be akin to being inaugurated as president by proclaiming one's Christianity, stating belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, and dedicating oneself to Jesus-essentially a doctrinal test for politicians.

Americans know that the second scenario is not likely to occur. Although the new president lays his (or her) hand on the Bible and references God, these ceremonial acts are interpreted according to individual conscience and imply no specific doctrinal content. Indeed, the Constitution the president swears to protect and defend outlawed religious tests for federal officials, and, during the early 1800s, individual states slowly ended local practice of religious requirements for public office. However, this formal Constitutional principle didn't stop the forum questioners from insisting upon some sort of informal religious test for their candidates. Several people asked about the theological beliefs (not even the more generic religious beliefs) of candidates on a wide range of issues and pointedly quizzed them on their views of the Bible.

Several years ago, I taught theology at a Christian college-a task that I disliked because the class almost always devolved into a sort of checklist of right opinion to get into heaven. The Republican forum reminded me of that experience. The candidates were required, down to specifically quoting scriptures, to "check off" the right religious answers in order to secure their party's bid for the nation's highest office. It is almost as if a politician will utter the magic words - "Jesus is my Savior" or "the Bible is true in all that it affirms" - millions of people will cast their vote for that candidate. While I do not doubt the sincerity of (most of) the answers, the whole exercise struck me as politically dubious.

Americans need to understand that the relationship between religion and politics is a malleable one - there are few clear-cut rules regarding their interplay. The U.S. is neither a "Christian Nation" in the way it is popularly interpreted, nor is it ruled by a rigid separation of church and state. Neither cultural war stereotype is entirely true or entirely false. Rather, when it comes to religion and politics, we live in a perpetual state of creative tension. Throughout our history, faith and politics have created an often nuanced interplay of fine and sometimes conflicting lines-an interplay that requires discernment on the part of politicians, courts, and voters.

As a serious Christian, it matters to me that the president of the U.S. is a moral person with a mature conscience, and that he or she brings broadly shared ethical insights (along with other insights) to political issues. It does not, however, matter by what tradition that moral conscience has been formed as long as the office holder supports the Constitution. In the U.S., broadly shared political ethics generally include such things as respect for all human persons, a commitment to national and global justice, and developing national capacities of happiness, freedom, and liberty for all citizens. This is not a religious creed or a Bible verse. These are commonly held values that we have struggled for throughout our history. In our context, these values arose originally from diverse Christian traditions, but today numerous American faith traditions can assent to them. Although the founders never imagined the variety of religions in the contemporary U.S., they nevertheless opened the door for a creative political pluralism in the 21st century. We should not be electing a theologian-in-chief. We need to elect a good president.

As a Christian, I also know that getting the answers right on a doctrinal test are no guarantee of a person's moral disposition or fitness for leadership. Indeed, one's orthodoxy can bear little relationship to one's practice of faith. Experience, vision, compassion, good leadership, and an ability to govern well are the only tests upon which Christians-or other religious folks-should vote.

Of course, voters have the right to ask about candidates' religious views, and politicians have the right to talk about those views. But when such rights verge on becoming a faith test, then we begin to sacrifice the wisdom of our political system in favor of a testimony that more rightly belongs in church. And a big part of that wisdom is that our president does not make theological affirmations that exclude millions of Americans on Inauguration Day.

Diana Butler Bass ( is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us (Harper One, 2006) and a regular blogger for God's Politics.

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