5 Rules for Faith and Politics 2012



Rabbi David Saperstein & Oliver Thomas



Published in USA Today on 10/23/11


Watching the presidential candidates over the past several weeks has set our civic alarm bells ringing. Religion and politics can be a combustible mix. Admittedly, the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of God and government or of religion and politics. But we could use some constitutional rules of the road if America is to continue steering a path between theocracy on one side and hostility toward religion on the other.

Here are five guidelines for both politicians and religious leaders as we move forward into this election season.

  1. It is never appropriate — explicitly or implicitly — to impose a religious test for public office. Nothing is more profoundly American than Article VI of our Constitution. "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Though Article VI only prohibits government from creating such tests, the principle should apply to both candidates and religious organizations. As Republican President Teddy Roosevelt observed during a period of intense anti-Catholic bigotry: "To impose such a test by popular vote is as bad as to impose it by law. To vote either for or against a man because of his creed is to impose upon him a religious test and is a clear violation of the spirit of the Constitution." Voters should evaluate candidates based on their policies, their values and their character but not on whether or how they choose to worship. Similarly, no candidates — or their supporters — should suggest that they deserve votes (or that their opponents do not) because of their religious beliefs or practices.
  2. Religious leaders should refrain from using religious authority or threats to coerce the political decisions of American citizens or candidates. At their best, religious leaders serve as the moral goad or conscience of society. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. calling the nation to a higher and better way on civil rights. Yet there is an important distinction between being a prophet and a ruler. Religious leaders cross the line when they seek to coerce secular leaders or voters rather than convince them. Denying communion to candidates for their political views during a campaign is a case in point. Such public censure serves as a de facto endorsement of the opposing candidates. Even more disturbing is threatening to kick members out of their church if they vote wrong or the denial of communion to voters based upon how they vote. Democracy, and religious freedom, depend on voters being free to exercise their civic duty without fear of punishment or constraint.
  3. Candidates should refrain from citing religion as the exclusive authority for their position on issues. Democracy requires the ability to test public policies in reasoned discourse in a free marketplace of ideas. If a candidate claims that his or her sole source of justification for a policy is God, how can that assertion be tested and debated? Religious motivation is to be expected and commended, but candidates and legislators must be able to offer a civic or secular purpose for any public policy they propose. The First Amendment demands as much, and the Supreme Court has ruled accordingly. If a candidate asserts a religious reason for a policy, questions about the role faith plays in shaping his or her decisions are fair game.
  4. Politicians should try to be inclusive of all citizens when — in their public capacity — they choose to speak religiously. Lincoln spoke of "the almighty," Jefferson of "the creator" and Washington of "divine providence." Such attempts at speaking inclusively when speaking religiously are helpful — rather than divisive — to the body politic. Yes, nearly all religions have some exclusive aspect to non-believers or different believers, but public officials can speak so that their moral power and imagery unite rather than divide. This does not mean that references to Jesus are per se inappropriate. Take George Bush's famous response to a debate moderator's question about the most influential political philosopher in his life. When candidate Bush responded, "Christ, because he changed my heart," the critics howled. Yet the candidate's response was honest, appropriate and revealed something significant about his values and political views. In short, there was nothing out of bounds for our former president to cite Jesus as the most important influence on his politics. It was up to voters to decide whether candidate Bush lived up to such high ethical standards.
  5. Religious organizations have the constitutional freedom — and we would argue moralduty— to speak out on the great issues that confront our nation, but as tax-exempt entities they should never endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Partisan political activity by religious organizations amounts to an end run around campaign-finance laws by allowing tax-deductible contributions to subsidize political campaigns. It's not just that such endorsements violate federal tax and campaign laws; there is something deeply problematic from a religious perspective. Cloaking any candidate or political party in the divine mantle is certain to disappoint. Candidates are, after all, human. Identifying a candidate or political party with God compromises our moral standards, disillusions our members and diminishes our prophetic voice. Accordingly, candidates and their campaign staffs should respect the sacred space of churches and never seek to organize partisan support through houses of worship. While religious organizations should refrain from partisan political activity, clergy have every right to endorse or oppose candidates in their individual capacities. Many clergy — including one of us — have actually sought and served in public office, and most Congresses have had clergy who served honorably and effectively in one or both chambers.

There is a religious, as well as civic, principle at stake here. It is the third of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Most Americans think it's as simple as not saying the words "g-- d---," but they are wrong. The heart of the commandment is about using religion for personal gain.

Such as votes.


Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is writing a book on the use and misuse of religion in American elections. Rev. Oliver Thomas is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Both men are constitutional lawyers and have taught at Georgetown University Law Center.

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