The Upside of Keeping Religion Private

The Upside of Keeping Religion Private May 1, 2015

It looks like Ben Carson might need some help from John F. Kennedy. Southern Baptists have canceled an invitation to the surgeon and would-be presidential candidate to a pastors’ conference over discrepancies between his statements and Baptist convictions. Carson’s membership as a Seventh-Day Adventist is not the source of the problem, though it might well have been 100 years ago before many Protestants reclassified the Adventists as evangelical rather than a cult. The problem is that he has referred, according to Tommie Kidd in the Washington Post, to Muslims and Jews as God’s children:

Hosting Carson and other Republican candidates, the critics said, continues to convey the impression that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is “in bed with the Republican Party,” as Baptist21 put it. Leaders of the Pastors’ Conference “mutually agreed” with Carson that he would withdraw.

This was a welcome outcome to what had the potential to be a serious snafu for the SBC. Whatever the organizers’ intentions, Baptist21 has this exactly right – hosting any political candidate carries a tacit implication of endorsement. Baptists and other evangelical denominations would do better to stop platforming political candidates at all. This includes handing out political pamphlets and “voter guides” at church.

Kidd argues that this raises a perennial issue among Baptists of whether they belong or not to the political mainstream.

Maybe, but the deeper one here is what religion can do to your chances of succeeding in a democratic election in which the voters have religious freedom (though some dispute it) and so bring a diversity of religious convictions to the ballot box. Will Americans vote for anyone who believes that Jesus is the only way to heaven and so also hold that those outside Jesus will be condemned on judgment day? Do political candidates need to keep their views about heaven and hell quiet? And if they come from religious traditions that supposedly take faith seriously, isn’t a political process like the U.S.’s going to filter out candidates who have strict ideas about what is going to happen on that great day?

Or will conservative believers need to do precisely what John F. Kennedy did (even if many of those same people who comprise the so-called religious right denounce JFK’s reduction of faith to matters private)?

I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

Maybe it’s time for evangelicals, for GOP candidates, for political conservatives to take a page from the Roman Catholic, Democratic, socially liberal President Kennedy.

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