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Are Questions about Religion Bigotry?

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All the God-talk in politics is upsetting some people. The media are picking up on this uneasy feeling among the electorate and are fanning the flames of a growing hostility in order to disenfranchise Christian conservative votes. Mitt Romney was so pressured by those questioning his Mormon faith that he addressed the issue similar to the way JFK did in September of 1960. It hasn’t helped that radical religious beliefs are driving the engine of terrorism today. Accusations of a Taliban-styled theocracy are often leveled against anyone who even suggests that religion has anything to do with politics. The preoccupation with religion and politics has gotten so bad that Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was accused of portraying a “floating cross” in his “Merry Christmas” campaign advertisement to send “an explicitly and exclusively Christian message.”[1]

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal organization defending religious liberties, is critical of voters who evaluate candidates on the basis of their religious views. Whitehead says the Constitution prohibits a religious test. “The Constitution is really clear. We’re not to have religious tests for office,” he states. “That’s spelled in Article VI of the Constitution.” True enough. The problem with Whitehead’s argument is that the constitutional prohibition is directed at what the federal government can’t do. There is no prohibition on individual voters applying a religious test or any other test when evaluating a candidate. The Constitution requires that “No person . . . “shall be eligible to [the office of President] who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States” (Art. II, Sec. 1). Does this mean that a candidate shouldn’t be questioned about his abilities and limited experience if he is constitutionally qualified at just thirty-six years old? Ronald Reagan was thought by some to be too old.[2] He was 69 when he took office in 1981. Reagan turned concern about his age on its head during his 1984 re-election campaign when he promised not to “exploit, for political purposes,” the “youth and inexperience” of his 56-year-old Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale. The age question has haunted John McCain as well.[3] Questions about age are important, and so are questions about religion.

Describing people who vote in terms of religious commitments as “bigots,” as Whitehead has done, is unjustified,[4] especially in light of comments he made in his 1982 book The Second American Revolution: “[W]hen the federal constitution was drafted, the principle faith in God was presumed to be a universal for healthy civil government. . . . The Constitution separated the institution of the church from the institution of the state but not the Christian religion from the federal state—far less Christian individuals from any meaningful activity within the state and society at large.”[5] I wonder if he has backed off from anything he wrote in The Second American Revolution.[6] It is still sold by the Rutherford Institute.[7]

Having said this, what Whitehead states elsewhere is important when considering the inherent limitations of politics and the attempt by many to save us by political means. Too many “religious individuals (particularly Christians),” Whitehead rightfully argues, are “determined to seek out a political savior.”[8] He goes on to say:

Religion does have a part to play in the national dialogue about our freedoms. The voice of moral authority raised without dependence upon the legitimacy of the state will always be the highest expression of true freedom. Such a voice denies the ultimate authority of the government to create or define right or wrong by its own power. In this way, religious individuals are able to speak truth to power. Religion also has a part to play in politics. For those who subscribe to particular religious beliefs, those beliefs understandably shape their perceptions of what is important in a candidate. However, religious individuals should beware of trading in their birthright for a bowl of political porridge.[9]

If he had stayed with this argument, his admonition might have gotten a hearing among the evangelical community where it is needed the most. Instead, the political Left has picked up Whitehead’s comments and is using them against Christians. I wonder if John will write an article condemning the Left for the way it applies an anti-Christian religious test to candidates.

Footnotes:
[1]
“‘Christian Leader’: Finding the true meaning of Mike Huckabee’s Christmas ad,” The Washington Post (December 21, 2007), A34
[2] See Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2005), 159–161.
[3] Edwin Chen, “McCain Seeks ‘Antidote’ to Age Concerns as He Launches Campaign,” Bloomberg.com (April 25, 2007)
[4]
John W. Whitehead, “Religious Tests, Bigotry and the Race for the White House,” The Rutherford Institute (December 6, 2007)
[5] John W. Whitehead, The Second American Revolution (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, [1982] 1985), 96, 98.
[6] John W. Whitehead, God is a Four Letter Word (Charlottesville, VA: TRI Press, 2007). See the Review by Barbara Rich, “Good things can come in small packaging,” The daily Progress (November 18, 2007)
[7] Rutherford Online. John wrote the Foreword to my first book, God and Government: A Biblical and Historical Study (1982). In it he wrote: “A return to the Bible as the foundation of American government is essential” (ix).
[8] This has always been one of John’s concerns: “In How Shall We Then Live? (1976), Francis Schaeffer writes: ‘To whatever degree a society allows the teaching of the Bible to bring forth its natural conclusions, it is able to have form and freedom and society and government.’ Schaeffer goes on to note that with the loss of biblical absolutes in American culture, American society has become ripe for an authoritarian state.” (In the Foreword to DeMar, God and Government).
[9] Whitehead, “Religious Tests, Bigotry and the Race for the White House.”
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