What Role Does a Candidate’s Religion Play in the Presidential Election?
To Rick Santorum, the role of religion in government is clear. The government, he says, “should never inhibit or discourage its role in the public square.”
Thomas Jefferson thought otherwise. While he hoped that the “Infinite Power which rules the destiny of the universe” would guide him, Jefferson also described “a wall of separation between Church and State” in an 1802 letter to Baptist leaders.
What is religion’s role in American political life? And how should it affect our voting behavior?
For most of our nation’s history, neither candidates nor presidents brought personal religious beliefs into their public lives. Of course, religion has sometimes played a role in politics.
Anti-Catholic sentiment doomed Alfred Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign. That year, Smith, a Catholic Democrat from New York, captured only six of 14 Southern states—far fewer than any Democratic candidate from 1876 to 1944. Smith repeatedly tried to keep the campaign focused on his progressive agenda, but he was considered “too much of a New Yorker” and too Catholic by Protestant voters.
By 1960, times had changed. John F. Kennedy overcame anti-Catholic feeling to become the nation’s first Catholic president. An important step toward that outcome came in a speech he gave to Protestant clergy in Houston.
The ministers had asked Kennedy to guarantee that he would observe the separation of church and state. “I do not speak for my church on public matters,” Kennedy told them, “and the church does not speak for me.”
Santorum and the Values Position
Rick Santorum, a Catholic, disagrees fundamentally and intensely with Kennedy’s position.
He says that Kennedy’s perception of religion’s role in public life caused “much harm to America” by promoting a too-liberal culture. To Santorum, a candidate’s moral beliefs underlie his policy positions.
As a senator, Santorum acted on these beliefs, sponsoring bills to ban certain types of abortion and to raise awareness about autism. He supported these measures because he believes that “each and every individual has value and [that] the most vulnerable in our society need to be protected.”
Romney Echoes Kennedy
Republican Mitt Romney is a Mormon, a Christian faith with some 5 to 11 million members. Mormons faced religious persecution in the mid-1800s. Some mainstream Christians still do not accept them.
In 2007, Romney gave a Kennedy-like speech about the role of religion in his public career. Like Santorum, Romney said it is fair for voters to consider a candidate’s religious beliefs: “Some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are.”
Like Kennedy, Romney answered one of those questions by clearly separating himself from the official positions of his church: “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”
Romney explained how he sees his role as a public official: “As governor [of Massachusetts], I tried to do right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution—and of course, I would not do so as President.”
Attending the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama spoke of his own faith as a “sustaining force” during the first two years of his presidency.
Obama also suggested how his faith guides him by talking about the three broad themes of his prayers. First, he said, “I pray for my ability to help those who are struggling.”
Second, he prays for humility, hoping that he and others will make an effort to understand different points of view and find common ground.
Third, the president said, he prays that he might “walk closer with God and make that walk my first and most important task.”
Religion in the Voting Booth
Three candidates for president: each with deep religious faith, each shaped by their beliefs. For voters who are not religious or for whom religion does not affect how they vote, this issue may be irrelevant.
Still, a person’s beliefs will influence character, ability, and responses to certain issues. Whether or not a voter is religious, religion will still play a part for the rest of the primary season and in the voting booth in November.