The Constitution of the United States of America is clear on the matter: Religious identity isn’t supposed to be one of the qualifications for a political candidate. The closing words of Article VI of the Constitution are: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
In presidential politics, this ideal of secular government is routinely ignored. Presidential candidates go to outlandish lengths to prove their Christianity to voters, saying that they’ve received direct orders from the Christian god to make a run for the White House. Barack Obama attends extremist right wing religious events like the Prayer Breakfast, has preacher Rick Warren convert his inauguration into a religious ceremony, and talks about how the Bible dictates White House policies. One would think that these politicians are campaigning to become Preacher In Chief.
A short statement about religion made by presidential candidate Rocky Anderson therefore comes as a welcome surprise.
When Anderson was asked during an online discussion, “What religion are you a part of?”, he gave the following response:
“None. I decided when in college that I should carefully consider the best ethical course for my life, then follow those guideposts, without focusing on the theological issues that divert so many people from doing the work that needs to be done, particularly on behalf of those who are most vulnerable and who need the help. I respect those who have, and who live, religious beliefs and values and believe that we each have our own way of making a positive difference while on earth.”
Rocky Anderson’s declaration of no religion, combined with acceptance of other people’s different ideas about religion, is a startling reminder of the approach counseled by the founders of the USA. The Constitution supports freedom of religion through separation of religion and government. Under this arrangement, decisions about religion are private, and not relevant to political debates. Whether a person wants to be religious or not is their own business, not something that the power of government ought to influence either way.
It’s interesting to see what Rocky Anderson said, and what he didn’t say. He said that he’s not part of any religion. That could mean that Rocky Anderson is an atheist. It could mean that he has some individual religious beliefs, but is not a member of any religious organization. What’s important is that Anderson puts such questions in their proper context: Theological debates about religious identity are less important than what we do in the world to try to make it a better place.
What Rocky Anderson is willing to say, while Obama and the Republicans strike poses of conspicuous Christianity, is that a presidential candidate ought to be judged according to deeds, rather than religious creeds.