Sunday, July 22, 2007

De Facto Religious Tests

The United States Constitution has always barred religious tests for political office. But this is merely a formal, legal rule that bars only formal tests to get on the ballot. It does not bar individual voters from taking religion into account and,in fact, American voters have always done so. As reported in the New York times, however, this religious test is becoming less sectarian over time. Catholics used to concern voters. They do no longer. Mormons and Muslims, however, still face political hurtles. And, some belief in God still seems to be a requirement for higher office:

Although the Constitution bars any religious test for office, if polls are to be believed, Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, faces a serious obstacle to winning the presidency because of his faith. Surveys show a substantial percentage of Americans would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, or for that matter a Muslim or an atheist. But how rigid is that sentiment?

The answer, of course, is complicated. Historical precedent and other polling information offer clues that many voters are willing to make at least certain concessions when it comes to a candidate’s religious observance when they pull the curtain behind them in the voting booth.

But could voters accept a president who believes in the Book of Mormon? What about one who believes in the Old Testament but not the New? Or one who venerates Muhammad, or Buddha?

There does seem to be at least one bottom line for many voters: belief in God.

“This is a deeply religious nation by many standards,” said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “They want their leaders to be believers. They want them to believe in something higher, to have a moral framework as they lead the country.”

Indeed, the religion test imposed by voters has evolved over the years, said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

. . .

Polls in recent years have shown a clear shift in religious considerations. The vast majority of Americans at this point, said Mr. Green, care less about sectarian affiliation, at least among members of faiths that are now perceived to be part of the American mainstream — Protestants, Catholics and most recently Jews — and more generally about whether the candidate believes in God and how that lends itself to a moral framework.

A national telephone survey released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center asked which traits, including being black, a woman, a Mormon, a Muslim, or a homosexual, would help or hurt a candidate the most. The worst trait for a candidate to possess? “Doesn’t believe in God.”

. . .

Skepticism persists, however, about those who belong to certain religious minorities. The Pew survey, for example, found 46 percent would be less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.

Nevertheless, the 110th Congress, which took office this year, included for the first time, two Buddhists and a Muslim.

An important part of overcoming the suspicions of voters, said Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the only Muslim ever elected to Congress, is to allow them to get to know the candidate as an individual.

“Could we elect a Muslim, or a Mormon, or someone from any other minority religion, is a different question from, ‘Could we elect Keith Ellison to represent the Fifth Congressional District,’ ” Mr. Ellison said. “Could we elect Mitt Romney? He’s a Mormon, but it’s not the only thing there is about Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney does not just represent Mormonism. Mormonism informs him, but he is fundamentally an individual. I think people are going to get that.”

Mormons at this point only represent about 1.5 percent of the population. In the Pew survey, 30 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate.

When challenged about his beliefs, Mr. Romney has sought to emphasize points of commonality with Protestants and Catholics, often asserting that he considers Jesus Christ his lord and savior.

But Charles W. Dunn, dean of the school of government at Regent University, founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, advised caution on this approach.

“That doesn’t play well with let’s say an evangelical audience,” he said. “Doctrinally, they understand, ‘No, we don’t worship the same God. We don’t have the same approach.’ ”

Instead, he said, like Kennedy before him, Mr. Romney should seek to emphasize religious tolerance. Indeed, Mr. Romney’s response to Mrs. Van Steenis ultimately settled on this message.

“This is a nation where people come from different faiths, different doctrines, different churches,” Mr. Romney said. “But, unlike the people we’re fighting over in the Middle East, we don’t have a religious test to say who should be able to run our country. It’s over there where people say, ‘You don’t go to my church, you can’t run our country.’ ”

When he finished, his audience applauded.

Read it all here.

As the case of Congressman Ellison illustrates, voters may form a different view of the importance of religious belief when they face a real live Muslim as opposed to the abstract notion of voting for a Muslim. I suspect this will be true of Romney--and perhaps even a future atheistic candidate as well.

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