Is the United States a Secular Nation or a Theolegal Democracy?
TELL ME MORE with host, Michel Martin from NPR News.
On Wed, Sep 14, 2011 Texas Gov. Rick Perry invoked stories of Paul to inspire Liberty University students to speak out against Washington politicians. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is also open about her religion. The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody and Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner discuss when it's fair game to ask candidates tough questions about faith.
The American public has a longstanding practice of upholding a theolegal democracy - a political system that allows public officials to use theology in its democratic process to shape law without instituting an official state religion. This behavior by voters often results in a de facto public religious test for office.
It is common for U.S. voters to spend a great deal of time scrutinizing the beliefs of elected officials. For example, in the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, millions of voters watched Pastor Rick Warren interview Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Warren opened the forum by saying, “We believe in the separation of church and state. But we do not believe in the separation of faith in politics because faith is just a worldview and everybody has some kind of worldview.” Warren made clear that, to the chagrin of separationists, citizens had the right to understand intimately the faith of those who were to take public office.
CNN’s Democratic Candidates Compassion Forum with Campbell Brown and Jon Meacham had a similar intent. We might well ask whether the Democratic candidates themselves may have been theologically constrained by the public expectation that officials should believe in God. If so, whose God?
An August 2008 Pew Foundation survey reported that seven in ten Americans believe that a president should have strong religious beliefs: eighty-six percent of Republicans agreed, whereas sixty-eight percent of Democrats agreed. Therefore, if Democratic presidential candidates are to win Republican votes it may be a practical political strategy to be publicly pious. These polls highlight voters’ motivations to inquire about the faith of presidential candidates and test the sincerity of their beliefs. Meanwhile candidates recognize their audience and therefore seek to be overtly religious as a political strategy, which strengthens the free-expression pillar of a theolegal democracy.
Some are not concerned with such forums because reasonable transparency about one’s theology is but one component in informing citizens about a candidate’s character, choices, and values. Others, however, reply by asking what are the consequences of such behaviors? With good intentions, voters want to know what political candidates really believe. But what are the consequences of asking about a candidate’s religious upbringing–is Barack Obama really a Christian? The media feeds on this desire and thoroughly investigates politicians’ religious affiliations.
Take for instance the fury with which voters in the 2008 presidential election consumed information about Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright; or Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal rituals to “rebuke witchcraft in the name of Jesus;” or the 2010 Senatorial race in Delaware where candidate Christine O’Donnell was rebuked for saying, “I dabbled into witchcraft.” These statements were formative moments in their campaigns.
Citizens from various worldviews intentionally, and unintentionally, use this kind of information to shape their perception of candidates’ characters, whether positive or negative.
Whether citizens vote for or against candidates because of their beliefs, all participate in a theolegal democracy, whether they intend to or not. Regardless of the election outcome, when a government allows freedom of expression and belief without establishing a state religion it is expected that the beliefs of those running for office will in some way influence voters’ perceptions. Voters in a theolegal democracy will act upon those impressions, whether pleased or offended by the official’s beliefs.