You know the country is headed in the right direction when only one thought dominates while you’re watching the news: “Another Republican presidential debate, another unconstitutional religious test.”
I’m kidding, of course. It would be unconstitutional if the government were sponsoring the debate. Say all you want about CNN and YouTube, the actual sponsors, but they don’t collect taxes (yet).
I confess that amid the twists and turns of a fascinating Democratic race, I have paid little attention to the GOP’s pre-primary fun. But a week ago, that changed: I watched the Nov. 28 debate (held in my home state of Florida); glanced at the Iowa polls; and realized that Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, might actually be the next president of the United States.
As a Lutheran, I am fascinated by the relationship between religion and government, especially in the campaign phase. The debate did not fail to feed this intrigue. Frankly, the inappropriate nature of certain questions about religion shocked me — in fact, to have religion questions at all should make reasonable Americans uncomfortable.
But the Republican electorate has come to expect this religious gauntlet to be placed before their candidate pool, and CNN made it as difficult as possible. In this ratings-obsessed culture, it is apparently OK to ask candidates such sensational questions as “The death penalty: What would Jesus do?” and “Do you believe every word of the Bible?”
The first question is oddly reminiscent of Gospel stories in which religious leaders try to use logical traps to trick Jesus into saying something incriminating. Jesus, being Jesus, consistently outsmarts them and rebuffs their attempts to discredit him. Similarly, in Huckabee’s case, the questioner is exploring the apparent contradiction between being a “Christian leader” (as Huckabee calls himself, which, to the questioner, implies that he follows Jesus’ directive to love and forgive his enemies) and support of the death penalty, and between being pro-life for fetuses and pro-death for murderers.
Ever the biblical scholar, Huckabee grasps the parallel and quite wisely addresses both underlying issues. He gives a rational (if debatable) explanation of why society needs the death penalty, how he personally struggles to reconcile society’s needs with his desire to act according to his Christian beliefs, and why it’s legitimate (again, also debatable) to pull out the stops to save fetuses but to put murderers to death. Then, in a priceless moment, Anderson Cooper ’89 gently but firmly (and completely seriously) cuts through the applause and says, “Governor, I do have to press, though; the question from the viewer was, ‘What would Jesus do?’ “ Recognizing the absurdity of the situation, Huckabee responds with his irrelevant but amusing remark, “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson.”
Humor aside, Huckabee’s initial response cuts to the core of what it means to be a Christian leader. At first, I merely dismissed the candidate as a hypocrite for supporting the death penalty and for automatically valuing the potential life of a fetus more than the actual life of a mother. But is it reasonable to expect that in a Christian leader’s administration an arbitrary or possibly even literal interpretation of Scripture will trump what he believes to be the best policy for the nation? Should America turn the other cheek when terrorists threaten, or should we fork over an entire tax surplus to feed needy children in Africa while corrupt dictators run amok?
Of course not. The Constitution’s framers understood that Christian principles do not easily translate to public service, and sometimes even appear in direct conflict with sensible policy. Article VI prohibits “religious tests” for public office, and the First Amendment keeps the government from establishing a state religion. These rules aren’t meant to discriminate against Christians, as some evangelicals might tell you, or to prohibit Christians from using their faith to guide them through the difficulties of being a legislator or president. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that leaders who are religious must not be limited by their personal convictions; the welfare of the nation must take priority.
Want to use Christianity as justification for supporting a ban on abortion? Great: Your conservative base will love it. Want to disregard Jesus’ admonitions about war and take out Osama bin Laden’s hiding place with a missile? Even better: This will benefit America far more than allowing him to live.
Even though we need to be skeptical of candidates who use their religion as a selling point, we should be able to take the idea of a “Christian leader” seriously — assuming the candidate does the same.
Jay Buchanan is a senior in Branford College. He is a former Editorials Editor and Copy Editor for the News.