America is officially a secular nation, but religion is never very far from the surface in her politics.
The Constitution is clear — the government will never establish an official state religion, it will never prohibit the free exercise of religion and it may never impose a religious test for public office.
But religion comes up on the campaign trail far more often than many other policy issues, and with far more controversial results.
Last month, for example, Donald Trump contrasted his religion (Presbyterianism) with that of another Republican candidate for president, Dr. Ben Carson (Seventh-day Adventism).
“And, look, I don’t have to say it, I’m Presbyterian,” Trump said. “Can you believe it? Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about it.”
The implication here is clear: Presbyterianism is normal. Seventh-day Adventism is not. That’s an ugly and vile slur against Carson and the estimated 18.1 million adherents of the church worldwide. (Trump later claimed he was simply expressing his own lack of knowledge about the Seventh-day Adventist church, but that’s an obvious and inexcusable justification of what was clearly a jab at Carson’s beliefs.)
And what does it matter? America is officially neutral on religion. (Although if Trump or Carson were elected, the American tradition of electing exclusively Christian presidents would remain unbroken.)
There’s a little irony in Trump’s prejudiced remark about Carson, since Carson himself stumbled over a religious issue back in September. On “Meet the Press,” Carson said, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
But Carson later amended his statement thus: “Anyone of any religious faith whatsoever, if they place the Constitution above their religious beliefs” could serve as president, he said.
That’s the right answer legally — presidents swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, after all. But it may land the good doctor in trouble with faith-based voters, who believe nothing should command higher loyalty than one’s duty to God.
But then there are times when candidates bring religious questions on themselves. For example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke this month at the National Religious Liberties Conference. That event was headed up by radio host and pastor Kevin Swanson, who has said gays invite the judgment of God on a nation and that perhaps gay people should face the capital punishment called for in the Old Testament — after being given sufficient time to repent, of course. He also praised the government of Uganda for “standing strong” under a law that could lead to executing gay people.
Now, just because those candidates spoke at the conference doesn’t mean they endorse Swanson’s ideas. (Indeed, Huckabee later claimed total ignorance of Swanson’s beliefs.) Plus, didn’t Jewish democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders speak to the largely Protestant student body of Liberty University? (Then again, Sanders went out of his way to make it clear he parted ways with his hosts on a number of issues, including marriage equality and abortion.)
Still, when a person accepts an invitation to appear and speak at an event such as the religious conference, they open the door to being asked the perfectly legitimate question of whether they agree with the organizers. More important, they invite the even-more-legitimate query about the extent to which they believe social or government policy should be based upon on religious doctrine.
In officially secular America, that’s something the voters nonetheless ought to know.
–Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.