We know too well that each election cycle is less a democratic exercise in choosing the best person for the job, and more a race for church deacon. Candidates on the right are lining up to sign pledges banning porn and same-sex marriage. They're displaying their skepticism of science and evolution as if it's a badge of honor -- as if denying the obvious implies a stronger faith and stronger moral character. While on the left, President Obama is communicating to the public in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that he's Christian, certainly not Muslim. And both sides of the aisle are reminding the public about their solemn efforts to do God's will.
So a question arises regarding the nature of faith and politics: Does the religion of a political candidate really make a difference? Don't most Americans, especially secular progressives, want to keep faith, or lack thereof, a private matter? I remember being proud of Senator and Presidential hopeful Bill Bradley for refusing to cave to pressure and expound to the media on his personal faith. But has the scene changed so much in ten years that we now need to reconsider this position?
Sure, there are several solid reasons not to get embroiled in religion when trying to run a political campaign, no matter what perspective you are coming from. The deeply religious probably want to avoid sullying their religion in a political world where attack ads are more successful than honest statements of intent. The moderately religious don't like to see religion in the foreground because it overshadows what matters most to them: the economy, education, and jobs. And of course the irreligious are seeking relief from the onslaught of politicians jumping at the chance to exclude them in their efforts to appear more devout.
In a society as religiously diverse as ours, faith labels may not be particularly informative either. There are conservative and progressive Baptists. There is a growing evangelical left. Karl Rove is an atheist. Even the consistently liberal Jews have an orthodox arm. Since there's no kind of consensus under a single label, it doesn't make sense for people to use faith labels as a shortcut, and fail to research a candidate's position.
Yet, as a practical concern, shouldn't we explore foundational issues related to the faith of candidates?
Since Sam Harris published Letter to a Christian Nation, there is an increasing interest in removing the taboo from criticizing religion, making it just like any other idea or ideology that can be open for discussion. That's consistent with New York Times Editor Bill Keller's recent argument that we need to ask candidates tough questions about faith in order to understand their positions and whether or not they are a "Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed." And as Richard Dawkins recently pointed out, faith positions are indicative of a leader's ability to be effective. In a recent Q and A in the Washington Post's On Faith column, Dawkins said that:
"A politician's attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well."
Even if labels don't communicate values effectively, core faith principles of potential elected officials do matter. We should want to know if candidates think people coexisted with dinosaurs, women should be submissive, or that our country should have a state church. Let's ask the questions that help us make informed votes regardless of whether or not such questions wade into religious waters.