Religion has always held a prominent role in American life—never more so than at our founding.
The quest for religious liberty animated our forefathers to abandon their homes, traverse vast oceans in flimsy boats, and endure innumerable hardships in a foreign land—all to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. They chafed at the ecclesiastical strictures imposed by the Crown and yearned to interact with their Maker on their own terms. Belief, they felt, ought to be the province of individuals, not government.
When the Constitution of the new republic was finally forged, the Framers took great pains to assure freedom of religion and liberty of conscience for all citizens of the United States. The Constitution forbade the requirement of a religious test as a qualification for any office of the United States (Article VI, Section 3) and the First Amendment prohibited Congress from making any "law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." No national church was permitted. The government was not authorized to advance or inhibit the spread of any particular denomination. A sect could only advance on the basis of the lives and testimonies of its adherents. Government's role in the battle for the mind was to be neutral. It was to avoid siding with any of the partisans.
Fast forward 220 years to the Presidential election of 2008. The Democratic candidates are trying to outdo one another in proclaiming their commitment to religious faith. The leading Republican candidate is a former Baptist minister and the candidate from whom he has recently taken the lead, a Mormon, has just delivered a speech on the role of faith in American life. In that speech, he affirmed his faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the savior of mankind.
All of this "religion-speak" among the candidates is driving radical secularists and some media elites absolutely crazy. After all, they have worked hand in hand for decades trying to exorcise any vestige of religion from the public square. They have mocked and ridiculed "religionists" who aspired to public office. They have marginalized religious groups who sought to participate in the public life of our country. And just a few weeks ago, they pronounced the Religious Right "dead" in no uncertain terms. But religion's influence in politics has risen strongly once again, rising from the grave in a manner which must surprise secularists. And to top it all off, even Obama, Hillary, and Edwards—candidates with a "D" after their names—are regularly quoting Bible verses and making overt religious appeals in their campaign rhetoric.
What's going on here? Is the Constitution being put asunder? Have the candidates stepped over the line? Should they be sent to the locker room for violating the rules of the game?
Absolutely not! What's going on is a healthy, robust discussion about the role of religion in American life. After all, religion is often a powerful influence on one's life. If you doubt that, consider how it has animated the actions of suicide bombers around the world. If an Islamic fundamentalist was running for president, wouldn't you want to know that? And wouldn't you want to know how such a candidate felt about things like the separation of church and state, religious tolerance, and the role of women in society before casting your ballot? Such an inquiry does not amount to an impermissible religious test under the Constitution. Imposing an impermissible test under the constitution would be to say that if you are a Muslim (or a Presbyterian or a Mormon), you cannot run for office.
If what we believe determines how we behave (and it often does), then an exploration of one's religious beliefs is fair game in any election. The electorate has a perfect right to inquire of the candidates about their religious beliefs. They do well, however, to stick to relevant inquiries. How a candidate feels about transubstantiation, concupiscence or infralapsarianism, and whether they are "sippers" or "dippers" during communion is not likely to reveal much about how they will govern. On the other hand, queries about where our rights come from, whether or not human beings are created in the image of God, and whether all people are really created equal (points of view that are often shaped by our religious views) may provide useful information by which to judge the candidates.
In engaging in such inquiries, voters will do well to do so with charity and humility. After all, probing into deeply held views can provoke strong reactions among candidates and the electorate alike. The goal should to be to inform, not inflame. Demagoguery does not advance the democratic process. But to suggest that an inquiry into one's religious beliefs is off limits and irrelevant to the voters' consideration of a candidate trivializes the importance of religious faith and reflects a poor understanding of the things that animate human behavior.