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Religion Becoming Political Tool and Hot Topic in Presidential Race

December 24, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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From Mitt Romney's Mormonism to Mike Huckabee's Baptist roots, religion has become a popular topic throughout the busy 2008 presidential election race. Ray Suarez sits down with political and religious scholars to compare this season to those of the past.

GWEN IFILL: Well, if there is one thing that holds true around family dinner tables during the holidays, it’s that discussions of religion and politics should never mix.

But the intertwined topics have become a recurring staple this election year, from Mitt Romney’s Mormonism to Mike Huckabee’s Baptist roots. Just last week, no fewer than six candidates, Republican and Democrat, released campaign ads touching on the holiday season.

The topic, however, is not taboo at our table. Ray Suarez takes it on.

RAY SUAREZ: Throughout their months on the campaign trail, presidential candidates from both parties have spoken explicitly to voters about their religious faith and how it shapes them. Some of them, like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, have spent more time talking about it than others, because they get asked.

Tonight, we get four views on where faith fits in with politics. Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., is a leader of the Value Voters Summit and founder and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition.

Martin Marty is a historian of modern Christianity and a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he helped create an institute for the study of religion.

Edwin Kagin is an atheist and the national legal director for the educational group American Atheists.

And Richard Cizik is the vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents millions of evangelicals in the United States.

And, Richard Cizik, is there a definable, proper role for religion in a political campaign?

The proper role for religion?

Martin Marty
University of Chicago Divinity School
Almost all the religion we get on the campaign is prideful, arrogant, exclusive, et cetera. And I don't know how anybody would be drawn to any of the faiths being described.

RICHARD CIZIK, National Association of Evangelicals: Well, the candidates often define what those parameters are and shouldn't be, so it's hard to say there is any one definition of what should occur in the debates. Obviously, some candidates will answer questions; others won't.

I think that it's an important time, though, to discuss questions about religious liberty, and what we stand for as a nation, and why we're different from other countries in the world. And so I think a lot is fair game.

RAY SUAREZ: Edwin Kagin, what's the proper place for religion in elections, in political persuasion?

EDWIN KAGIN, American Atheists: They have absolutely nothing to do with one another, exactly as the founders set forth in the Constitution.

Jefferson and Madison were very clear on this. Article VI of the Constitution says in black letter law there shall never be any religious test for any office under this Constitution. And one really wonders just what part of "no" they don't understand.

To ask someone what sin he committed is a religious test. We are, after all, a nation of laws and not a nation of sins. The concept of sin is a religious test; it's a religious concept that our founders wanted no part of. That's why God is not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Bishop Jackson, is there a proper role for religion in political campaigns?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR., High Impact Leadership Coalition: I think so. Everyone's values are shaped by some school of thought. And your morals and your religious convictions will found the platform, if you will, for your decisions.

So if I'm going to get to know how someone is going to act in the future, I need to know their framework, their worldview, their concepts.

And so what the people are trying to do is find out whether they can trust the kinds of decisions that this person will make, based on the kind of person that he is today. And I think that's fair territory.

And think about it this way. All of our laws, all of our civil laws are based on some set of morality. We are saying x and y is wrong, as a culture, based on somebody's set of truth. And the great thing about democracy is that the Christians get a chance to talk about it, the atheists get a chance to talk about it, and we decide collectively what the true laws should be, but they're based on somebody's morality.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Marty, where do you come down on that question?

MARTIN MARTY, University of Chicago Divinity School: Well, I should like to think that these people running for the presidency of all the people, and therefore, when they deal with religion, the two great dangers are, one, to flaunt it and, two, to exploit it.

Flaunting it really runs against most of the religions they profess. Most of them are somehow Christian.

The sermon on the mount, Jesus says, "Don't flaunt it. When you pray, pray alone. Don't make a public scene of it. You'll have your reward, and it won't be the reward you're looking for." That's flaunting it.

And exploiting it is whenever you're taking one segment of the population and saying, "The others aren't right. They can't be moral. They can't be ethical. They can't be good citizens."

So those are the boundaries that I try to watch all the time. Or, to put it another way, I think we should look for more winsome, positive, glowing vision of religion.

Almost all the religion we get on the campaign is prideful, arrogant, exclusive, et cetera. And I don't know how anybody would be drawn to any of the faiths being described. You're being rallied around a faith, but you're not being drawn to the virtues of any of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, you just heard Bishop Jackson say that people want to know. And certainly there is a lot of curiosity among voters. Bishop Jackson mentioned we want to know what your compass is, what your worldview is. Is that legitimate?

MARTIN MARTY: I certainly think it's legitimate, yes. It's all part of it. If they ask me, I can describe how this is going to bear on all kinds of issues.

He has a perfect right to use his faith to say, "Because of my faith, this is the view I'm going to have of abortion or opposite of it." That's perfectly legitimate. It becomes a public policy.

All the way back to President Carter, who said, "I'm a Baptist. We believe in a certain kind of liberty. I'll advocate it." That might even create some problems in foreign policy. When you do that, you know whether to vote it up or down or not.

But when they're really saying, "I'm more pious than you are, I'm more shaped by values than you are, the people I hang out with are the ones that are the real Americans and you're not," I think that's what I'm saying is not a winsome presentation of the faith and it means that any president elected on those terms is going to be president of some of the people, but not of the whole republic.

We have our model in Abraham Lincoln. He said, "Don't claim that you have the almighty behind you. Don't claim that the almighty is on your side. You should seek to discern the mysterious will of God and try to follow it." And that's what we don't hear enough of.

EDWIN KAGIN: Yes, we certainly don't hear much of the incredible landmark statement of President John Kennedy when he was asked about this. He was the first Roman Catholic successfully elected to the presidency. And he made it very clear that there should be no connection whatsoever.

And the people who seem to think there should be some connection seem unfamiliar with the writings of the founding fathers, as well as with the teachings of the sermon on the mount, as has been stated earlier.

The Bible says rather clearly that you cannot serve both God and mammon. And Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world.

The idea that our laws are based on somebody else's moral code is, I think, fallacious. The government of the United States is in no way based on the Bible. Democracy is not mentioned in the Bible. It's simply not there.

The Bible has a system based on judges and kings, on codes, on commandments, on rules, no give-and-take, no due process of law, no juries, no fairness, strictly the leaders tell you who -- that meaning the priesthood -- and then you do as you're told by the religion.

That's the danger, and that's what our founders wanted to avoid. But we're a nation of laws.

RICHARD CIZIK: Well, we obviously -- we are a nation of laws obviously. And we live under the rule of law. But that doesn't prohibit, for example, the values and the religious beliefs of millions upon millions of people being used to evaluate candidates.

This goes all the way back to the founding. In 1800, for example, posters read, "Adams and God, Jefferson and no god." A hundred years ago, in the William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan campaign, the same issues came up.

And it always will, because we are, as one person described -- I think it was de Tocqueville -- he said, "We are a nation with the soul of a church." So given this fact -- and it's not going to go away -- let's learn to navigate the terrain.

And these questions are helpful. For example, what Mr. Romney said was that freedom requires religion and religion requires freedom. Well, the second is an adage of theological truth that everyone would agree, because religion without freedom is, indeed, coercion.

But I wouldn't agree with Mr. Romney, for example, that freedom requires religion, because there are, in fact, countries and societies that are free and are secular. The fact that he said this I find interesting.

And this is what we want to know in a campaign. How does a presidential candidate think about these issues of faith and politics? And we found something out, didn't we?

EDWIN KAGIN: We certainly did.

Romney and secularists

Richard Cizik
National Association of Evangelicals
He didn't begin to even address the issue of secularists. And so his ploy -- in this case to Evangelicals, Mr. Romney's ploy -- his appeal to evangelicals left out secularists entirely.

RICHARD CIZIK: In fact, he didn't begin to even address the issue of secularists. And so his ploy -- in this case to Evangelicals, Mr. Romney's ploy -- his appeal to evangelicals left out secularists entirely. 

So it may have been tactically good for Mr. Romney to make that appeal, but it was intellectually insufficient.

RAY SUAREZ: Bishop Jackson, did you find that the Romney speech left out people of other faiths, non-Christian faiths, and no faith at all?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Well, I don't think he left anyone out. I think he was attempting to deal with the fact that he is seen as being an elite person. He's got this "questionable," quote, unquote, faith. There is a certain amount, in my view, of prejudice against Mormons, because we don't know whether they are -- do they have three wives, or whatever?

And so I think he was attempting to say, "Take a look at me. Here's who I am. Here's what I really believe." And I think you've got to evaluate that on a different kind of set of rules than if he was saying, "Every American should be this, that and the other."

He simply said, "I believe we should have freedom of whatever religion you are, to operate in it. I believe faith is a wonderful thing." He didn't really define what faith. And I believe that he wanted to let people know that "I am proud of my personal heritage."

And so, again, his value system was exposed by discussing religion. And then you can say, "Do I want someone who stands with his family and tradition? Do I want someone of deep conviction?"

 He was seen as being a waffler or a flip-flopper by some. And I think he addressed those kinds of questions.

So the problem is you can't say religion doesn't count and then talk about your religion at the same time. You can't have it both ways. And that's the only thing I see that was a little bit challenging in his speech, is almost he's saying, "It doesn't count, but let me tell you about it anyway." That was the only tension I found.

Religion in the 2008 elections

Edwin Kagin
American Atheists
You cannot possibly have freedom of religion if you do not have the freedom not to believe. And anyone who doesn't understand that has no business running for president of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Marty, you heard Richard Cizik mention William Howard Taft, who was a Unitarian, William Jennings Bryan, an Evangelical Democrat who made a very strong religious pitch to the country. But is this an argument, in effect, that we've been having for 218 years since the drafting of the Constitution?

MARTIN MARTY: Yes, I think Richard Cizik is exactly right. Religion did play a big part in slavery and anti-slavery, in prohibition and anti-prohibition, in women's rights and anti-women's rights. The civil rights movement is that.

But these are voluntary expressions of citizen groups. They all have a right to organize and try to win. I'm saying it's very destructive of human relations when you rule out those who don't agree with your politics and you claim God on your side.

But Richard Cizik is right. And I happen to admire some of the ways he's been putting religion to work in his life. He doesn't rule you out if you're not an Evangelical. He doesn't say, "You're going to Hell if you're not an environmentalist."

But he is saying that, "I'm shaped by these things." That's exactly what several of these people tonight are saying.

 It's strictly though when you are pridefully flaunting what you are, and I must say that, while Mitt Romney said many things that were useful -- I thought he handled the Mormon thing very well. He said, "Take it off the table."

Where he overstepped, though, is where he really did -- I have to disagree with the bishop here -- he really did rule you out. If you don't have religion, you can't have freedom. And that's manifestly untrue in American past. And (inaudible) coming down the block and in every precinct, it's still untrue.

RAY SUAREZ: Edwin Kagin...

EDWIN KAGIN: And what about the atheist, shall we say?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I was just about to say, what about the atheists?

EDWIN KAGIN: What about the atheists? Sadly, there is a commonality running through all of these political statements that you must have some kind of religion to be a good person. This is a major philosophic flaw that strikes at the heart of our democracy.

Now, if someone truly believes that they must believe in God to keep from robbing, raping, murdering, stealing, then I think they should go right on believing in God.

But to imply that if someone does not they are somehow a bad person, this is destructive of the intent of our founders.

As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it, he said the legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Now, there has been a great deal of dispute in recent years, sadly, about whether or not freedom of religion means freedom from religion, with many people asserting quite sternly and dogmatically and tyrannically, I might add, that you cannot have freedom from religion.

Of course you can have freedom from religion. You cannot possibly have freedom of religion if you do not have the freedom not to believe. And anyone who doesn't understand that has no business running for president of the United States.

Religion in the 2008 elections

Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr.
High Impact Leadership Coalition
I believe that this election is going to be determined by the people of faith yea or nay. Despite my atheist friend's comments, people have certain value systems. They're looking for people that agree with them.

RAY SUAREZ: The 2000 elections were said to be marked heavily by this kind of overt appeal to religious voters and religious themes. Are we on the verge of another election where that trend will continue, or are there other issues that are making that tendency in American politics subside?

Let me get you first.

RICHARD CIZIK: Well, I happen to think that faith will yield certain kinds of public policies. Mr. Huckabee, for example, has said that it's because he believes in God that he believes this Earth, for example, isn't his or ours. It's belonged by God, and we ought to care for it. It's called creation care.

And so in that sense to the extent that faith or its consequences do lead to certain public policy conclusions, in this case Mr. Huckabee saying he would support what is going on in Congress today, a bill for cap-and-trade of greenhouse gas emissions, then I think that's important to know.

And if, for example, you happen to disagree and do so on a faith basis or otherwise, say so. So I would hope that we get away from some of the personality elements the bishop has suggested, you know, the elements of Mormonism. We shouldn't be trying to dissect what the faith is.

Even Mr. Huckabee has said he doesn't want to do that. Well, he then went ahead and did it anyway.

But let's get away from that and look at, what are the consequences that we logically will come to if we do accept certain premises? That, to me, is a more fruitful conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: Anybody?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Well, no, I believe that this election is going to be determined by the people of faith yea or nay. Despite my atheist friend's comments, people have certain value systems. They're looking for people that agree with them.

In 2000 and 2004, it was the fear of same-sex marriage and fear of certain other things that led Evangelicals to come out by the millions.

At this particular point, the fear that the concerns about life and family and other issues are going to be left off the table I believe is one of the central issues that has rallied people around Huckabee.

And I think you're going to find that many, many people are going to feel compelled to talk about their faith and, therefore, we are going to have, I believe, a spoiler effect in that whoever is most antagonistic to faith will suffer some kind of penalty in this election season.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you all very much, Bishop Jackson, Richard Cizik, Professor Marty, and Mr. Edwin Kagin. Gentlemen, thank you.