The De Facto Religious Test in Presidential Politics

By Amy Sullivan
Via Time  

Republican Mitt Romney speaks Oct. 17, 2011, from the bed of a pickup truck at the opening of the Romney for President Nevada Headquarters in Las Vegas.
David Allio / Corbis

Officially, the United States has no religious test for elected officials. The prohibition is right there in Article VI, section 3 of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Accordingly, the government may not prevent an individual from seeking or holding office because of their particular religious faith or lack thereof.

Voters, however, are an entirely different matter. Since 2000, more than two-thirds of Americans have told Pew pollsters that they want the President to be a person of faith, which effectively imposes a test of religious belief for candidates. And some voters go even further — often explicitly encouraged by their religious leaders — by reserving their support for candidates who openly profess theological beliefs similar to their own.

At the CNN debate on Tuesday night, Anderson Cooper asked the GOP presidential aspirants whether voters should subject candidates to such religious tests. Answers ranged from the enthusiastically pro-test position of Newt Gingrich — “How can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” — to the nonsensical response from Rick Perry — “I can no more remove my faith than I can that I’m the son of a tenant farmer. The issue, are we going to be individuals who stand by our faith?” (See “What You Missed While Not Watching the Las Vegas GOP Debate.”)

Only Mitt Romney was willing to challenge the concept of a religious test. “That idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office is what I find to be most troubling,” he said. “The founders of this country went to great lengths to make sure — and even put in the Constitution — that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion.” The answer was self-serving, yes, given that Romney has the most to lose if Republican voters judge him by his Mormon faith. But it was also right. Read story at Time

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