Submitted by: Tom Cara, Director, FFRFMCC
Perhaps CBS News decided this was the best question and should be saved for the end. But for awhile, it looked as though we would be able to get through two full general election debates before religion was brought to the table. Unfortunately we were not so lucky, as the penultimate question of the 2016 Vice Presidential debate went like this:
“You have both been open about the role faith has played in your lives. Can you discuss, in detail, a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and a public policy position?”
Debate moderator Elaine Quijano prefaced this question by putting it in the category of “social issues.” I put it in the category of “INCONSEQUENTIAL!”
Americans would be greatly divided on this, but voters should be no more concerned with how candidates balance their religious faith with public policy than they should with how they balance their favorite culinary dish with public policy. It’s a difficult concept for many people in this country to grasp, but elected officials are entrusted to leave their religious views on the front steps before entering the halls of government to manage our nation. Public policy and religious faith may be something that politicians do often grapple with, but it is not something voters need even be made privy to for purposes of decision-making regarding which candidate to support.
For this discussion, it is not even necessary to get into specifics about how the candidates responded to the question, which ultimately turned into a heated debate about abortion rights. Nor should we even be concerned with which devoutly religious candidate actually showed the most respect for the Establishment Clause in their answer. What we should be concerned about, is that this was even considered an important enough question within a debate forum that will be the only face-to-face discussion between the two potential successors to the Presidency of the United States. There are dozens of other issues of far greater importance that could be raised to address the health of our nation rather than hearing about the faith struggles of candidates. And we should be appalled the framers of the debate felt the need to raise this particular question to the candidates, and then completely ignore asking their positions on such issues as evolution; or climate change; or stem cell research.
We know both candidates have indicated during this campaign their doctrinal faith is what guides their lives. On one hand, we should not automatically assume their acknowledgement of this means they would use that faith to influence public policy. But what we should ascertain from such a comment is that they have made the decision to rely on ancient texts for guidance, and have therefore waived their right and desire to think for themselves. If someone were to say they use Bill Maher’s “New Rules” as an exclusive guide for their life, we probably wouldn’t hesitate to suggest they might want to be a little more open-minded and consider additional philosophical points-of-view in that regard.
But when it comes to candidates holding faithful to their religious dogma, this often goes unquestioned. And when political candidates of the same religious tradition (even when they are aligned with different denominations within that tradition) are asked to discuss their faith, any contentiousness they may have shown toward each other on other issues suddenly disappears. Miraculously, they decide to become cordial to each other. Because people of religious faith, especially Christianity, will rarely argue philosophical thought regarding their beliefs with each other, even though they know very well there are often substantial differences in doctrinal interpretation between denominations. Apparently there is a hidden commandment within the Christian faith that states: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Christian.” And just once, it would be nice to hear political opponents, who hold to the same religious tradition, say to each other: “I respect your beliefs, but your interpretation of our faith is dead wrong!” But they will not do this because they realize it would do nothing but portray their religion as a convoluted mess — which it is.
But given the coddling offered to the Christian majority in this country, perhaps a debate focus for future consideration in presidential elections should concentrate exclusively on the candidates’ varying degrees of Christian perspective on such things as economic and foreign policy, immigration, national security and civil rights issues. After all, isn’t it more important to make sure those individuals who interpret Christian doctrine properly are the ones elected to make our decisions for us?
And in this sad, new world of reality TV camouflaged as politics, this might not be too far-fetched.
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