Here’s a hypothetical scene in which four presidential candidates are asked about their religious views.
Candidate 1: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” He adds, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Candidate 2: “As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”
Candidate 3: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
Candidate 4: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”
Were this to take place at a public debate today, I expect Candidates 1 (Thomas Jefferson), 2 (John Adams), 3 (James Madison), and 4 (Abraham Lincoln) would be booed off the stage, their political careers ended.
None of the current Republican candidates seems to have the courage of the man once known as Mr. Conservative (Barry Goldwater), quoted in the September 16, 1981 Congressional Record: “I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D.’ Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?” Are we better off with today’s presidential candidates who pander to religious factions and cannot end a speech without “God bless America”?
I think the most reasonable Republican candidates are the two Mormons. My bar here is set pretty low: they never talk about their deity telling them to run or how to vote. Perhaps they have a good reason to downplay their Mormonism. The only thing atheists and Mormons have in common is that a significant number of Americans admit they wouldn’t vote for either.
As far as the role of faith in the 2012 election, I can’t say because I don’t know the faith of the candidates. I can take them all at their publicly religious word, but why should I? The major truth-telling test for me among candidates is whether a candidate expresses a view that he or she knows will be politically detrimental. That’s why I’ll believe any candidate in this country who says he is an atheist, and I’ll believe any candidate in Iran who says he is a Christian.
The important question to ask all candidates is if and how their private faith would impact their stands on public policy. I could be comfortable with a candidate who says she would compartmentalize her irrational, faith-based beliefs and govern rationally on evidence-based information.
I was appalled by the Christian values expressed by both the candidates and the audience in the most recent presidential debate. The audience cheered when Rick Perry proudly talked about how many citizens he was responsible for executing in Texas. And the audience again cheered when Ron Paul said the government should ignore the plight of a young person with a deadly disease because he failed to pay for health insurance. Even worse, in my mind, was that none of the other candidates publicly disagreed, though they had no problem challenging anyone who favored government money for health care.
As an atheist, I pick and choose from many books—including the Bible. I particularly like how the quote from Matthew 7:16 applies to the presidential candidates who were on stage that night: “By their fruits you shall know them.”