American Christians may pledge loyalty to the United States Constitution. But behind the closed curtain of the polling booth, many violate the spirit of the constitutional prohibition on any religious test for public office. And several church-state experts insist that's not altogether bad — up to a point.
Article Six of the Constitution ends with the clause: "… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." But imposing religious tests as a matter of law differs from voters imposing them in practice, some authorities on church-state issues noted.
American voters "impose an unofficial religious test that vets candidates based on their religious views," and it's entirely legal and appropriate, said Derek Davis, dean at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and former director of Baylor University's J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies. Both are Texas Baptist schools.
"This unofficial test does not serve to disqualify anyone from running for office; it only serves to allow voters the freedom to consider the religious views of candidates for whom they might vote," Davis said.
A candidate's religious affiliation remains "the litmus test most people won't admit to, but that they carry around with them" into the voting booth, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
"As responsible citizens, religious affiliation should have no bearing whatsoever on selecting someone for public office," Haynes insisted. But he draws a sharp distinction between religious affiliation and religious commitment.
"Their religious commitment in terms of its influence on the lives that they live, on the values they hold and on their worldview — those all go into character," he said. "It's fair for voters to know the source of a person's values and how that person makes decisions."
As a practical matter, "voters can and do take religion into account," said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
Voters should bring their religious values to the public square. They have every right to consider a candidate's religious faith as one factor out of many in making an informed decision about whether that person would be a good public servant, Walker said.
"When candidates talk about their faith, it helps us know who they are, learn what makes them tick, and examine their moral core. The free and fluid discussion of candidates' faith carries the promise of improving the electorate's ability to make an informed decision in the voting booth," he said.
In fact, public interest in the private religious faith of candidates signals a healthy level of respect for religion's role in society, said Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission, the public-policy and moral-concerns arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Questions about religious convictions can reveal valuable insights into a candidate's character and values, she noted.
"The alternative would be a prohibition against talking about religion, and that would just be terrible," she said. "It would deny the electorate a window into who the candidates are."
While voters should consider a candidate's religious commitment as one factor out of many, it never should become the single decisive test to determine an individual's suitability for public office, said James Dunn, resident professor of Christianity and public policy at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
"Religion ought to be a factor, but not a prohibitive factor," said Dunn, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee.
To the extent that a person's religious views shape his or her moral character, those views can be weighed. And a candidate's adherence to some beliefs also may reveal something about the individual's discernment and ability to make rational decisions, he added.
"We insist, in Western democracies, that our public leaders should not believe absurdities, because those who believe absurdities are capable of atrocities," he said, paraphrasing Voltaire.
Looking back on their heritage as a persecuted minority religion, Baptists should resist "the de facto political anointing of particular religious perspectives," recognizing the danger that presents both to religion and government, Dunn added.
In practical terms, voters historically often have excluded from office people who do not follow the religion practiced by the majority, Paynter acknowledged. But she sees positive signs of change. "I'm hesitant to use the term 'religious test' because of its specific meaning and because a test does not change. But the electorate's tolerance (of religious minorities) changes," she said.
Discussion of personal religious convictions can be helpful, but it should not be seen as mandatory, Walker stressed. He suggested an important backstop to keep questions of faith from devolving into religious bigotry.
"Ask the follow-up question, 'So what?' he recommended. "What difference will a candidate's religion make on his or her performance in office? What impact will it have on public policy? How does it affect his or her leadership style?"
Matters of personal religious conviction become fair game when related to policy decisions and a candidate's ability to lead. But adherence to the spirit of the no-religious-test principle demands that linkage be made, Walker said.
"It is not only not very helpful, but also terribly invasive to have a theological inquiry isolated from policy and matters of governance," he said.
Nonetheless, when appropriately framed in terms of how convictions make an impact on decisions, questions of religious commitment can provide valuable insights into the character of candidates, Paynter observed.
When people reach a certain level — whether in politics, business or any other powerful enterprise — there's always a temptation to see themselves as above the rules that apply to others, she noted.
"It's important to know the grounding people have for their public ethic," she said. "Public ethics come from private ethics. They don't go the other way."
In selecting a president, Davis added, voters also rightly may consider the office's ceremonial role, which has an almost pastoral dimension in times of national catastrophe "when Americans need their national leader to share their grief and soothe their hearts and somehow offer some spiritual comfort."
But, he cautioned, the president must respect the institutional separation of church and state. Davis also prescribed a good dose of humility, saying voters should take care to elect leaders who recognize the danger in equating their policies with God's will.
"The ability of any world leader to know precisely the will of God is foreign to the Bible. The Bible speaks of an inscrutable God who often has brought down powerful nations in their prime due to their pride," he said.
"The temptation to act religiously based on our own fallible interpretations of domestic and world events is among the reasons our constitution wisely mandates a degree of separation between church and state, thus preventing too close an alliance between the interests of religion and government that might harm our great nation."
Human experience and biblical revelation both point to the need for humility, Dunn added. He quoted Romans 11:34: "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Who has been his counselor?"
"True believers understand we do not know the mind of God," he said. And he strongly suggested steering clear of those who claim they do.