Last week’s CNN/YouTube debate was revealing – at least when it comes to what the mainstream media obviously thinks of political conservatives. The selection of questions about worldwide conspiracies, punishing women who have abortions, the Confederate flag and gays in the military – all posed from a leftist perspective – speak for themselves, even setting aside the fact that some of the questioners turned out to be Clinton, Obama and Edwards partisans.
In several instances, candidates could have helped themselves enormously simply by disputing the premise of the question. For former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in particular, the debate was a missed opportunity. Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, was the only candidate called upon to respond to both the questions that specifically invoked religious faith: One was “on the death penalty, what would Jesus do?” The second was “Do you believe every word of the Holy Bible?”
Certainly, the constitutional prohibition on religious tests for public office applies only to government action. Voters are (and should be) free to make up their minds about whom to vote for based on any criteria they choose, including the nature of a candidate’s religious faith. But when party debates start probing the nature of candidates’ theology, there’s a risk that such religious inquiries will begin to unravel an unspoken consensus that has served the United States well: Namely, that the profession of specific sectarian religious beliefs won’t become an explicit, though unofficial, qualification for holding high office.
Mike Huckabee was the only Republican candidate on the stage last week who could effectively have challenged the appropriateness of asking about Jesus’ beliefs on the one hand, and Biblical interpretation unrelated to any public policy issue on the other. In particular, his fellow respondents to the latter question – Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani – were poorly positioned to offer any criticism, given the issue that Romney’s Mormon faith plays in the campaign and Giuliani’s well-known divergences from the tenets of his Church.
As a pastor, Mike Huckabee was uniquely credentialed to draw a line in the sand. How refreshing, how healthy for Republican politics, and how good for the country as a whole it would have been if he had said, “Anderson, as an ordained minister, I could talk religion with you all day. But we’re here tonight to talk about what we’ll do as President, not about our individual theologies. When you ask questions that attempt to identify and highlight sectarian divisions among us, you’re setting a precedent that’s bad for America. Theological questions shouldn’t be asked of presidential candidates, and for that reason, I decline to answer.” Such a response would have cost him nothing among his supporters – and it would have earned him the respect of all the voters, many of them people of faith, who were appalled at the nature of the question.
Obviously, Huckabee has chosen another course. The video his campaign prepared for the debate explicitly characterized him as a “Christian leader.” Clearly, he believes that there is political advantage in subtly contrasting his religious background and beliefs with those of his opponents. Ultimately, however, values voters and people of faith in the political arena (like Huckabee) will be those who suffer most if Americans decide that – however repugnant the efforts of secular liberals to excise religion from all public discourse – theological inquisitions conducted by the media and sectarian divisions exploited by religious conservatives are no better.