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Herb Silverman

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How Would Jesus Vote? Christian Politics in the State Of Lost Causes

Posted: 01/13/2012 3:54 pm

Christianity and many other religions are sometimes described by category, rather than by denomination, as conservative, liberal or cultural. To that, I would add a fourth category: political Christian, i.e. a candidate for public office who feels the need to profess deeply held Christian beliefs.

In my home state of South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley was raised as a Sikh, and became a Christian prior to running for public office. When she first became a gubernatorial candidate, her website said, "I believe in the power and grace of Almighty God." She later felt the need to change it to "My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life. Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day."

A cynic might say, "Maybe it's also about winning elections."

Her predecessor, former governor Mark Sanford, had sex with his "soul mate" in Argentina, which he mistook for the Appalachian Trail. After being caught, he held a press conference in which he apologized to his spiritual advisor and to people of faith across South Carolina. Implicit in his apology is that people of faith are expected to be more moral than people without faith. What seems clear to me is that politicians who continually proclaim their faith are likely to be more hypocritical than those who don't.

I watched with some sympathy when Mitt Romney, a Mormon, ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008. My sympathy was not for his political positions, but because surveys showed the main thing atheists like me and Mormons have in common is that a significant number of Americans wouldn't vote for either of us, no matter how qualified the candidate.

In trying to explain how reasonable Mormonism is, Romney said on the June 5, 2006 Charlie Rose show, "The most unusual thing in my church is that we believe there was once a flood upon the earth, and that a man took a boat and put two of each animal inside the boat, and saved humanity by doing that." Romney essentially said that his holy book is no more preposterous than the holy books of other candidates. I think he has a point.

Here is a brief history of non-religious freedom in South Carolina. The 1778 State Constitution stated, "That the Christian religion is the true religion" and "The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State." That was updated in 1868 to its present form, "No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor who denies the existence of the Supreme Being."

Of course, this more "tolerant" version is still unconstitutional, since Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. So I assumed this was just an anachronism, and could easily be changed. I was wrong. To challenge this unconstitutional provision, I wound up running in 1990 first as a gubernatorial candidate, and then applying to be a notary public, since atheists were prohibited from holding any public office. It took eight years and a unanimous verdict of the South Carolina Supreme Court to state the obvious, that no religious test for public office may be applied, not even in South Carolina.

While atheists are now eligible for any office in South Carolina, the South Carolina Constitution can only be amended by a referendum in which the majority of voters approve the change. This is not likely to happen any time soon. It took a referendum in 1998 for South Carolina to remove its anti-miscegenation laws from the State Constitution. Even then, 38% of South Carolinians voted against allowing blacks and whites to marry, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that states could no longer prevent interracial marriage.

My state wasted about $100,000 trying to keep me from becoming a notary public. Most of the political leaders in South Carolina, and the lawyers advising them, knew they wouldn't prevail legally. Yet, those same politicians showed that they would rather waste time and money on a lost cause than risk the wrath and lose the votes of the state's well-organized religious right. South Carolina is known as a state that fights lost causes.

I'm planning to cast a write-in vote in the Republican primary for fellow Charlestonian Stephen Colbert. He's a Christian with a sense of humor about his faith, and he doesn't use his faith to pander for votes in South Carolina. Please check the presidential scorecard of the Secular Coalition for America.

I wish Romney, Paul, Gingrich, Santorum and Perry would learn that marketing their faith for political gain might just be sending some voters running to support the "none of the above" candidate, Stephen Colbert.

Herb Silverman is professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America. He is the author of the 2012 book,"Candidate Without a Prayer," and will be writing dispatches from the South Carolina Primary.
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