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Last night I tuned in to the Democratic primary debate between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. It’s the first Democratic debate I’ve watched during this election season. After watching a couple of big tent circus acts called the Republican debate, it was refreshing to actually see two accomplished leaders in our country spar over ideas.

Granted, Clinton and Sanders share the same basic world and life view. Consequently, their debate was within a shared framework. But the exchange included very direct questions from the moderator and panel of questioners as well as some substantive policy discussion. It was far more than I’ve seen elsewhere.

Among the things that stood out to me were the direct questions about religious faith. An audience member asked Senator Sanders whether God was relevant in his view. The same questioner asked Secretary Clinton if she prayed and to whom she prayed. Frankly, the answers were lackluster.

This morning I’m more concerned about what such questions suggest about those of us who ask them and the place of such questions in our political discourse. Here are three such concerns:

  1. The questions encourage hypocrisy.

As I think about it, Sanders and Clinton (any candidate) asked about their religious faith are tempted to hypocrisy. How do you answer that question in a way that presents yourself honestly and avoid offending significant swaths of the American voting public? The politician feels a responsibility for not offending people. They are, after all, seeking to be public servants.

But we live in such a polarized time—including religious polarization—that a non-offending reply is nearly impossible. Even evasions of the sort we saw last night will no doubt leave some a little chafed. I felt for Clinton and Sanders. Neither candidate ran on a “religious platform” or openly offered themselves as exemplars of some religious tradition. Yet they were giving an account for questions and realities they may have thought very little about or may have not resolved with any conviction. In the country’s largest “fear of man festival” the allure of hypocrisy must be tremendous. The worst thing they could do is answer well, save the answer as a talking point if asked later, and go on feeling like a debate success but having none of the power of godliness that saves. And, we religious folks then receive precisely what we’ve fomented with our questions: hypocrisy in the highest office.

  1. The questions politicize the faith.

I believe people of faith belong in the public square. I believe they must bring their faith with them if they’re going to be people of integrity. And I believe religion—not just spirituality, but good old-fashioned religion—has a lot to offer in the way of public goods. Sanders said as much when he attributed Christianity’s neighbor love ethic to all religions. Forgetting for a moment that the ethic is really only found in a pronounced way in Christianity, Sanders was laying claim to a public good—a religious public good.

But when a candidate is asked about their faith or the “relevance of God,” they’re being asked a political question. At that point, Christianity (or any religion) becomes a weapon, a tribal spear designed to pierce the body politic. The very asking tears asunder. Candidates either speak the shibboleth and enter the tribe (so it seems; remember the hypocrisy), or they fail the test and are denied entry. And what have we done to our religion? We’ve sullied it with the smut of “political tricks” and “sound bites.” We’ve reduced what’s big, glorious, weighty and transcendent to the small, petty and sometimes ridiculous. Christianity shouldn’t be politicized even though it teaches principles necessary to godly political behavior.

  1. It suggests a religious test for public office.

My good brother Kevin Smith tweeted this to me following the religious questions posed last night:

Of course Kevin is correct. We have no religious test for public office in this country and that’s a good thing. The framers understood what tyranny could result in a country that politicized religion to the point of litmus testing. They also understood that being a person of religious faith does not ipso facto make you a worthy public servant. Perhaps it would be no surprise at all to the framers that the people who seem to have forgotten this lesson are religious folks themselves. In an election season where at least one primary candidate promises to “extend” the rules on torture and another is being dubbed “God’s choice” for the presidency, we’re probably wise not to give them added religious zeal and approval.

Now, I know simply asking the question doesn’t establish a formal religious test. But I also know that informal practices, cultural ways of being, have a sneaky way of becoming de facto law before they become formal law.

So, all this to say: Let those of us who love the Lord and the faith be careful about how we engage candidates about their personal faith. If we hope to reach them, we probably don’t want them thinking we only care about these questions as political points or religious tests. And we probably don’t want them skilled at being hypocrites when and if we do get to talk with them.


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34 thoughts on “Three Problems with Asking Religious Questions of Political Candidates”

  1. Doug says:

    Applicable also to politicians:
    Matthew 7:15-16 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”

  2. Curt Day says:

    There is another reason with asking religious questions of political candidates. The problem is that while listening to the candidates and their religious answers of the candidates with glee or scorn, we forget how we are affecting others in how we share society. We have to ask ourselves whether we want to share soceity with nonChristians as equals or in a hierarchical way where we assume some degree of privilege over them. This is a Christian entitlement that causes us to be unnecessarily offended when society doesn’t agree with our views.

  3. Doug says:

    The “no religious test clause” applied only to the federal government. States maintained religious tests for office. Much has changed since, especially in terms of how candidates are selected. Universal suffrage as we know it today was widely feared. That said, we should not naively assume a candidate’s faith or lack of it, has no bearing on how that person will govern. As James said, faith without works is dead. Tyranny no doubt can result from someone’s religious belief, but it is more likely to come from someone’s lack.

  4. Mike Steffan says:

    You lost me at, “it was refreshing to actually see two accomplished leaders in our country”.

    1. Charley Larson says:

      I agree with you 100%…..accomplished ‘leaders’??? Wow…

      1. john mosher says:

        Be careful

    2. Rett says:

      Garbage like this is why I don’t share or endorse TGC material anymore. So many better options out there than this. Accomplished leaders? To say nothing of Thabiti’s argument for a secular politic. We shouldn’t just want to know about a candidate’s faith, but if that faith has flourished into a mature Christian worldview.

      Also, just because the constitution does not concern itself with their religion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. The militant secularists are going to be sure to vet these candidates in an attempt to divorce any Christian influence from their political philosophy. Thabiti apparently would have us do the same.

      Isn’t it amazing that Thabiti can give a subtle apologetic for these two while taking veiled shots at Trump and Cruz. While at the same time some of his TGC comrades are losing their minds over Trump, writing op-ed after op-ed for the WaPo about how dreadful the man is and how supporting him is an attack on the purity of the gospel while simultaneously being in the bag for a Roman Catholic? What a mess you guys make of politics… Can’t even dismiss Trump for the right reasons. His unrighteous policies. You know… The same reason we should be dogmatically dismissing these two “accomplished leaders.”

    3. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      LOL. All I meant by the phrase was we have two people who’ve reached pretty high office. Becoming a senator or secretary of state is not easy. By that measure, these are accomplished folks apart from the ways we’d strenuously disagree with their positions.

      T

      1. Miffy says:

        Then say what you mean. You seem to be trying to stir the pot & gain readership by deliberately unclear or divisive words. Your LOL may as well be accompanied by a smirk. Then well-done. Clap clap.

        1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

          I did say what I meant. Any reasonable person would think of a US Senator as “accomplished.” I think you’re reading into the post your own thoughts or concerns, even judgments about what you think were my motives. But this isn’t an attempt to stir anything. If anything, it’s an attempt to call Christians back from some unhelpful forms of engagement.
          T

          1. Rett says:

            It is not only the case that you make the “accomplished leaders” comment in the context of the “circus act” of the Republican debates and label it “refreshing,” but you also take obvious stands against Trump and Cruz and argue others should do the same with the following comment…

            “In an election season where at least one primary candidate promises to ‘extend’ the rules on torture and another is being dubbed ‘God’s choice’ for the presidency, we’re probably wise not to give them added religious zeal and approval.”

            Whether you realize it or not, your bias is showing. Which is fine, as long as you are willing to be honest about it.

            Full disclosure, I support Cruz and could support Rubio if need be. Everyone else would be a disaster for religious liberty, and thus the advance of the gospel and the free exercise of the Christian faith. I see the point of not baiting politicians to speak about their faith in generic and vague ways. In reality, no politician is going to sound like a seminary professor while discussing theological topics for the sake of alienating part of their coalition of supporters and also for the mere fact that they might as well be speaking a foreign language to the majority of Americans. We should look to their policies to discern their religious influence.

            I apologize for using the terms “garbage” and “trash” in my previous post last night. I am quite amazed and disturbed by the absurdity that abounds from evangelical voices in regards to politics and my emotions got the best of me. It is quite clear you have put much thought into your article, even if I find it disagreeable on many points. If I am failing to assume the best of your intentions I apologize for that also. Sometimes, that is very hard to do, and politics doesn’t exactly cultivate that kind of understanding. I still think you can better lay your cards out on the table here and perhaps explain yourself better. If this is about making the democrat options appear viable options for biblical christians, then that’s a different discussion. One that is worthy of being discussed as well.

            1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

              Dear Rett,

              Thank you for your comment, brother. I really appreciate it.

              You are, of course, correct about my biases in this race. I’ve made no secret about the candidates I most vigorously don’t support, namely Mr. Trump. In my opinion, he is the least experienced and the most dangerous candidate in the field–hence the reference to his stance on torture, for example. But I want to hasten to add that I don’t support Clinton and Sanders either–though my bias against them isn’t as evident here because I was reflecting on what, imo, was a better quality debate between them. But you’re correct to spot my bias, which I wasn’t trying to add and wouldn’t begrudge others for theirs.

              Thank you for your kind apology. It’s completely accepted and any offense forgotten. In fact, I find it refreshing to receive an apology like this in an internet age and a presidential primary where feelings do run high and people rarely admit any mistakes. Thank you for not only the apology but the example of genuine humility. The Lord bless and keep you, friend.

              Thabiti

            2. Curt Day says:

              Rett,
              Whose religious liberty are we talking about? After all, those who wish to participate in same-sex marriage have religious liberties too. The minimum of those liberties is not to be bound by the religious beliefs of others.

              As for Cruz and Rubio, they would carry into the office the belief that the US, and Israel for its own region, are entitled to do whatever they please in terms of judging nations according to international law and executing those judgments without accountability. And that is despite the fact that the standards they would use to judge the actions of other nations are not applied to the US in the world and Israel in its region. The trouble with such entitlement is the denial of sin.

  5. Miffy says:

    I agree, it IS ridiculous to ask these religious questions. What I find even more ludicrous is that you described these 2 politicians – supporters of abortion {murder} – ‘accomplished leaders- especially considering the scandal surrounding Clinton. You are correct in your assertation that Christianity shouldn’t be politicized. So my question for you is ‘Whatcha gonna do?’ You have at least one foot in the political arena; the majority, if not all, of your articles, have a political message. Are you a pastor or an activist? The world doesnt need another poop-disturber, but I bet there are plenty of openings for ‘shepherd’.

    1. Piffy says:

      Miffy,
      Do you alone decide who can be labeled “accomplished leaders”? Were you thinking the best of Thabiti before upbraiding him? Are you Thabiti’s Lord/Master? Should Thabiti consult with you before determining the aims and contours of his ministry. Did you consider the fact that other Christians actually appreciate and benefit from Thabiti’s post before relegating him to “poop-disturber” status? Does your post exude the love by which the world will that we are disciples of Jesus Christ? Grace to you!

  6. Charley Larson says:

    I wonder if anyone of the families of the 4 Americans slain in Benghazi would consider Hillary an ‘accomplished leader’ ??

    1. Haze says:

      Clinton has achieved lots of not-very-easy-to-achieve things and has occupied senior positions of authority. She is an “accomplished leader” by any reasonable definition of those words. That does not cease to be the case because you don’t happen to like her (I don’t like her either). Genghis Khan wasn’t a very nice man; he was still an accomplished leader.

      1. john mosher says:

        “Accomplished leader” assume that someone has accomplished something. A title, such as senator, does not mean that “accomplished” must precede it. Even a cursory examination of Clinton’s record, from Whitewater to “getting lucky” in a one day 100K bet on the commodities market to lying about and covering up Bill’s rapes/ affairs to “pressing the reset button with Putin” to endorsing early withdrawal from Libya and Iraq to endorsing the financial disaster of Obamacare to lying about her server and the emails to criticizing Wall Street while taking $250K speaking fees at tax payer supporter institutions to knowingly lying about the cause of Benghazi all the while supporting infanticide on demand. Respect is earned, never given, especially when one has never held a job in the private sector their entire life. I say this not to criticize you but to elaborate on the necessity to use the proper adjectives when describing most of our Congressmen. I do not, nor would I ever support Trump but wouldn’t it be just as easy to say he was “accomplished” because he has accumulated earthly riches?

  7. bondservant says:

    More often than not, there’s enough information on how they live and what their policies are to determine what their spiritual life is like. And enough information to determine whether they will actually be inclined to fulfill their responsibility of protecting and defending the Constitution.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Well said.

  8. Rett says:

    Civil law is dependant upon moral law. The function of the civil government is to reward good and punish evil. Good and evil must be defined for civil government to function as God intends. Thus it morality is dependant upon religion. Therefore, every civil law is inherently religious. It is either guided by a biblical morality or an anti-biblical morality. Which is how you get those who call good evil and evil good.

  9. Steve says:

    Perhaps Thabiti is correct about the specific questions asked, but any question, particularly questions about social issues, is a religious question. Abortion and same-sex marriage immediately come to mind. I am disturbed that the logical outcome of this argument is that Christ followers have to “cleanse themselves” of all references to the source of their political convictions.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Completely agree that every social policy is in effect a moral position enshrined in law. My wife and I were discussing this when I showed her a draft of the post. My suggestion would be to ask the moral question rather than the superficial religious one (i.e., “Do you pray?”). The moral question is the real question and it’s the real argument, whether or not people arrive at that moral position through common grace, witness of conscience, or explicit religious views.

      The logical outcome of this post is not “Christ followers have to ‘cleanse themselves’ of all references to the source of their political convictions.” That’s a very different idea than what I’m writing here. One can make reference to the source of their political convictions (and should, as I point out in the first paragraph under point 2). I’m saying questioning a candidates religious background is not the same thing as discerning their moral commitments or expressing our own. I think the questions are often shallow and counter-productive. Better to argue the issues and their moral basis than ask these kinds of questions.

      Hope that helps.
      T

    2. Kevin says:

      Why is it so common that these are the only two issues that come to mind. There are a host of other issues that should be of equal concern to Christians, yet mainstream evangelical culture seems to suggest (or sometimes demand) that we support leaders who are routinely on the wrong side of those issues.

  10. Steven Douglas says:

    Asking a candidate about his or her faith, or voting in a certain way depending on their answer is not a “religious test” as framed by the Constitution. That clause has to do with the state setting a test to ensure a state mandated religion – like England has (Anglicanism). Private citizens should be encouraged to consider the faith of their candidates, because they are electing their rulers.

    It is hard to make biblically principled arguments for voting in America, because the Bible writers had such a different political reality than we do, but they certainly had a political reality. Throughout Scripture we see how leaders acted/reacted and how it affected God’s people. Politics is not divorced from faith and beliefs in Scripture, in fact, the political climate was often the reason faith was needed (think of Elijah and Jezebel, Esther/Mordechai and Haman, Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt, etc.).

    I think, though, if we are to take our faith seriously and see good leaders who will uphold not just the Constitution but God’s desire for humanity, we need to be purposeful in holding our candidates to Scripture and to living out the faith they profess. Yes, they could become hypocrites and perjor themselves, but that is up to them, not the cotizenry. The risk of their lying does not releave our duty and our passion for electing godly leaders who have a deeper reason for seeing justice done in the world.

    I recognize we are not electing our church elders here, but we are electing elders who will oversee and set new public policies that have much to do with our experience of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which, rightly understood, are biblical concepts. We cannot expect unbelievers to understand those concepts rightly or from a biblical worldview, so we should not be surprised when they fail to adhere to them.

    You will know a tree by its fruit… There are several candidates running for President of the United States who, by their history, lifestyle, commentary, or voting record, show they are not believers in Jesus Christ, and care very little for citizens rights and freedoms. Two of these candidates want to move us to varying degrees of humanistic socialism, another to some for of authoritarianism. These do not fit with a biblical worldview and further will not lead to human thriving for those who do not believe as we do. We have a responsibility to vote in such a way that we prevent future human suffering and glorify Jesus in our politics to the best of our ability.

    I would ask one more thing of any readers of this comment – please pray for all the candidates, just as you would pray for your neighbor. Pray they would have a personal relationship with Jesus. Pray they would let the Spirit lead them in policy decisions. Pray that God would work in this election not to judge us, but to redeem us with a president who loves Him and takes faith and human good seriously.

  11. Ken Davis says:

    Hi Thabiti,
    I like reading your posts. I think you think well. Keep up the good work. (Just thought a piece absent of vitriol would be nice for you).

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you so much, Mr. Anyabwile. I appreciate that you would share things for us to ponder on.

  13. Michael says:

    I might add a fourth idea. It always struck me as odd to ask a political candidate religious questions because it puts the asker in a weird position where they are almost expecting the politician to actually be a religious leader, as in a pastoral authority. The church has gotten itself into some hot water by pushing too much of its responsibility onto the state–be it state-run care for the poor or trying to legally enforce Christian ethics (which, noble though the impulse may be, is about the least Christian way to change a person). From this angle, I look at the ‘no religious test for office’ clause as a relief for the church, exempting her from looking to the state as her god and empowering her to look to God as God, look to her people as priests and ministers, and look to politics as one looks to the weather. A wind that blows this way and that, but doesn’t change the work you have to get done in a day.

    In short: why ask a religious question of a leader that isn’t your religious leader?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Good stuff. Thanks for leaving that for us to chew on.
      T

    2. Chris Nelson says:

      What a travesty to think state and church can be separated, how silly. Christ is king even of our evil nation.

  14. David Miller says:

    All presidential candidates in this country face an unofficial religious test. Sometimes it shows up subtly, sometimes in a more straightforward manner. What we need to develop as Christians is a culture that encourages believers to think biblically about all issues – even on complicated issues where we won’t come to the same conclusions. What we have currently in the evangelical culture is a two issue litmus test – abortion and marriage. Thus, any pastor can play it safe, endorse Republican politics and get a pass.

    The limitations of this approach are currently being exposed, however. We are inching ever closer to a Republican nominee who is a profoundly ungodly man. Mr. Trump has checked the essential boxes. He claims to be pro-life and pro-traditional marriage. But the shallowness and vulgarity of his campaign is anything but Christian. Articles like this one, however imperfect, help to nudge us closer to a necessary and far-reaching Christian conversation about politics. We must not compromise our deepest convictions, yet we should never settle for politicians who try to play us either. This November will require a lot of prayer.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Amen.

  15. Wes Holmes says:

    We see many people comment on Thabiti’s post with some reference to abotion. I’d love to talk about what Christians want/demand the next president to do about it besides emote. That is to say what tangible differences would a like-minded candidate make?

  16. Chris Nelson says:

    Religious liberty is our founding sin and as such it has pivoted back upon us and is now swallowing us whole. Christ is King, all the founders had to do and many were strongly encouraging them to, was to say something like, “even as we establish this Republic and Constitution as we have we acknowledge Christ is King and everything is subject to Hims and His law.” That would have been wonderful, as it was though, they rejected Christ’s authority and foolishly allowed any and all religions an equal voice, which is absurd and ultimately relativistic.

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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