Does a candidate’s faith matter?

Patheos is running this campaign where they have a weekly question that several of their writers tackle.  Here’s is this week’s:

Does a candidate’s faith matter?  For instance: Is it wrong or un-American to take a candidate’s faith into account when choosing for whom to vote?  Is it wrong for a Christian (or Muslim, or Jew, or Atheist…) to prefer, between two otherwise equal candidates, a person of her own faith?

Yes, a candidate’s faith matters, but only because reason matters.  As I’ve often said, the salvation of humankind is our intellect and reason.  It’s why we have abundant food, water we can drink without worrying about being sick, cell phones, airplanes, indoor plumbing, pornography at our fingertips, beer, etc.  I want a President who relies on reason to solve our problems.

The moment a President stops thinking about solutions to problems and stops working toward those solutions to instead beseech the ghost of a 2,000 year-old Canaanite Jew for help, he has in that moment made himself a less capable leader.

Sam Harris said it beautifully in Letter to a Christian Nation.

“The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.”

I want a President that trusts exclusively in humanity to fix our problems, since that is the source of every solution we’ve ever enjoyed.

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Just Wondering

    Your useof the Sam Harris quote is priceless. You do realize he makes excuses for Pre Emptive Nuclear wary, torture, profiing, and killing people for BELIEFS?

    And he backed the Bush Wars to the hilt. The man would be a tyrant if he was in control

    • JT Eberhard

      Which is precisely why I used the quote! You can’t think a person says one smart thing without also believing that they’re correct about every idea or position they’ve ever had.

      That’s why I never quote Francis Collins. Because I think he’s wrong about god, the human genome project is therefore crap. Ditto with Blaise Pascal; his wager for god’s existence is an abysmal argument, therefore fuck trigonometry.

      Thanks for the insight!

      • Umlud

        Don’t forget that we can’t trust anything that Newton said, because: alchemy!?!

    • John Horstman

      This is what ad hominem looks like, for those of you who are confused and throw the term around improperly. Just because Sam Harris is a Bad Person (actually, I don’t think he’s a bad person, though he certainly has advocated some truly disturbing ideas; you can still think he is if you like, because it doesn’t particular matter with respect to the issue at hand) doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the specific thing about which we’re talking.

    • Matti

      You seem to labour under the illusion that the decrees by Pharyngula commentariat carry non-zero weight outside FTB.

  • eric

    To the extent that someone’s religion affects how they plan to govern, voters should take it into account. To the extent that it doesn’t and is more of a hobby, I don’t think it should be taken into account.

    Its nice and neat to say that presidents should behave like rational agents. But no human is perfectly rational. We all engage in ritualistic behavior. The real question should be whether that behavior affects policy or not. If Obama wants to engage in standing up, sitting down, chanting and meeting with his friends on Sunday mornings, I could care less whether the focus of all this ritualistic behavior is the bible or the Washington Redskins. So long as his hobby doesn’t affect how he governs, its pretty much all the same to me.

  • RenDP

    It depends on whether or not the person can compartmentalize or not. For example, in the VP debate Joe Biden explained that while his faith may dictate his beliefs in his personal life, it has no business dictating policy when it comes to doing the job he was elected to do. By contrast, Paul Ryan believes the two are inseparable, and his beliefs will dictate public policy.

    Mitt Romney is still a bishop in the LDS church, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Salt Lake City will play part in what he does. According to Romney, we all worship the same god anyway, right? I’m freaking out right about now :-/

  • John-Henry Beck

    Trouble with faith is it makes it hard to be sure when they’ll use reason and when they’ll fall back to faith-based irrationality. I’m not sure many people only do socializing in church and avoid all the pitfalls of faith outside. I think we should look very closely at those professing faith and claim it’s harmless.

    • eric

      If you’re going to defend rationality, part of that is accepting the evidence of empiricism even when it conflicts with our own biases and prior beliefs. If our common sense tells us the world ought to work one way, but empiricism tells us that the world works a different way, we should give up our common sense notion and accept what empirically seems to be true, yes?

      Okay then: empirically speaking, there is no evidence that a religious moderate like Obama (or Romney, for that matter) will suddenly go off the deep end. Moderate religious belief on its own does not strongly correlate with violent behavior, anti-social behavior, psychopathy, or any other similar trait. I know it seems common sensical that people who hold one sort of irrational belief may be more prone to making a wider range of irrational decisions. But empirically speaking, that doesn’t seem to be the way humans actually work in the real world. Empirically, we seem to be really damn good at compartmentalizing. So I think the burden of proof is really opposite the way you want to apply it: we should probably assume any normal religious person is NOT a ticking time bomb, and only consider the possibility that they might be if there is specific evidence to support the notion that they are. (Rather than assume they are a ticking time bomb and demand evidentiary support for the notion that they aren’t).

      • Baal

        Excellent point Eric!
        I generally like people who are the least compartmentalized (they tend to be nuance while being consistent (and not hypocrites)) but you’re right that most folks are capable of thinking in completely different patterns for different contexts.

        • eric

          OT, but I think compartmentalization is a highly useful adaptation – and something we should generally see as a good thing, not a bad thing. Consider how much mammals use play and practice to learn skills. Play requires the ability to compartmentalize; otherwise, we’d kill our young when they pretend-attack us. We couldn’t recognize the difference between a football tackle and an assault. We might demand 12 scientists agree on a conclusion before it becomes scientifically accepted, or insist that years-long experiments be performed before reaching a verdict on someone’s guilt or innocence for a speeding ticket.

          The problem is that, like all adaptations, this one can be misapplied. That’s not good. And yes, I think religion is a sort of misapplication, where the believer carves out an arbitrary exception from their otherwise normal rules for belief. But I don’t think the ability to compartmentalize is a bad trait per se, I think its a good one. And I don’t think you’d actually want to meet someone who couldn’t compartmentalize rules of evidence and decisinon-maknig appropriately.

          • John Horstman

            I don’t know that you’re talking about what I would define as compartmentalization, though – not killing our young (or sex partners, for that matter) who play-attack us doesn’t require a different way of evaluating information or relying on a different set of facts about reality (this is what I understand “compartmentalization” to mean), it simply requires taking the context of actions into account. I think the recognition that context affects the meanings and effects of actions is important; I’m not so sure compartmentalization is in any way useful. Perhaps it prevents mass-suicide by allowing us to go about our daily lives without recognizing how truly horrible the world is…

  • icecreamassassin

    I think replacing the word ‘faith’ with ‘perception of what is true’ makes the question easier to answer. If someone’s faith has no bearing on how they perceive reality, well, then I don’t really care then. But if someone’s faith is the belief that I am a wretched person dragging down the rest of society because I do not recognize the existence of an undetectable super-entity, then yeah, that probably does matter.

  • Doug B

    I don’t believe in religious tests for political office even though some voters do those tests themselves.

    The media play into that but shouldn’t. I do care if a candidate doesn’t believe in evolution but I don’t think all Christians disbelieve in evolution.

    • Nate Frein

      I think you’re conflating two different concepts here. The constitutional ban on any “religious test” means we cannot require that a person follow a specific faith (or lack of one) in order to hold an office of any sort.

      I don’t think, however, that this forbids anyone from asking (or deciding given the candidates statements) whether or not the candidate will allow his religious views to inform his actions while holding a (supposedly) secular office.

      Congress asked Kennedy if he would govern free from the influence of the pope. This is a fair question. I think it’s also fair to ask Mitt Romney (and Barak Obama for that matter) similar questions. I refuse to vote for a candidate that I think will be influenced by his church’s hierarchy.

  • Art Vandelay

    If someone claims to have a personal relationship with the perfect, loving, omniscient creator of the universe, and they hold that relationship to be sacred…even more meaningful than the relationship they have with their own children, it’s safe to say that any voices in their head or impulses that they get that they end up justifying as divine revelation…they’re gonna listen to it.

    Unless of course they are full of shit, and have never felt like God was telling them something in their entire life but just chose to take the intellectually dishonest path of saying that they have faith in order to reap all of the social and political advantages of being a person of faith in this country. However, if that’s the case, and they are going to reap those benefits, they should also be subject to the circumstances. At the end of the day, you’re either an enemy of reason or you’re a liar. Of course, having held such high political offices in the first place, we probably already knew you were the latter.

  • Kodie

    The Reagan astrology thing kind of worried a lot of people.