Hearing political pundit Bill Bennett refer to me as a bigot and GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman call me a moron after my controversial comments on Mormonism, amid calls for civility and tolerance in public discourse, reminds me of the exclamation: "We will not tolerate intolerance!" But beyond the personal insults, I am concerned that these men are attempting to prematurely marginalize religion as a relevant topic in elections.
Polls continue to reveal that a large segment of the population does care about a candidate's faith. Voters who embrace any faith, or no faith, should consider the following:
* Discussion of a candidate's faith is permissible. Talk-show hosts have lectured me about Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits religious tests for public office, as if considering a candidate's faith is somehow unconstitutional, un-American or even illegal. How ludicrous. The Constitution is referring to religious litmus tests imposed by government, not by individuals.
Interestingly, John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and co-author of the Federalist Papers, thought a candidate's religious beliefs should be a primary consideration in voting. Jay wrote, "It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
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* Discussion of a candidate's faith is relevant. During a time of rising unemployment, falling home prices and massive deficits, it is easy to relegate religion as an irrelevant topic. Yet our religious beliefs define the very essence of who we are. Any candidate who claims that his religion has no influence on his decisions is either a dishonest politician or a shallow follower of his faith.
Those on the left and right have been disingenuous in suddenly claiming a candidate's faith is off-limits. David Gregory of "Meet the Press" recently asked GOP candidate Michele Bachmann how her religious belief about submission to her husband would affect her performance if she were president. That was a fair question: If she had to choose between obeying her husband or obeying the Constitution, what would she do?
Conservatives spent most of the 2008 campaign calling for an investigation of Barack Obama's religious beliefs in relationship to his membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church. Did he embrace the views of his pastor?
The question is not whether personal spiritual beliefs shape a politician's values and policies, but what spiritual beliefs mold those values and policies.
* Discussion of a candidate's faith is multifaceted. I have been misquoted repeatedly as telling the GOP not to vote for Romney. I have never made such a statement; I realize I might very well end up voting for Romney if he is the Republican nominee. While I prefer a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian, religion is not the only consideration in choosing a candidate. Frankly, Christians have not always made good presidents. We also must consider whether a candidate is competent to lead and govern according to biblical principles.
During this firestorm I've reignited over the role of religion in politics, some have quoted Martin Luther as saying he would rather be governed by a competent unbeliever than an incompetent Christian. Yet evangelicals should remember that the purpose of the primary process is to keep us from having to make such a choice. At this point, we have the opportunity to select both a competent leader and a committed Christian.