Should it be permissible to ask a political candidate about their religious beliefs?

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(long OP, sorry. if you want to skip it, i'm basically just riffing on the first ILX link below, and this thought-provoking article. you could read the article and skip my nonsense and still participate itt if you want)


the other day on U.S. Supreme Court: Post-Ginsburg Edition, there was an interesting discussion about asking a candidate for higher office (in this case supreme court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett) about how their religious views relate to their secular decisions. interesting enough that i wanted to break it out into its own thread. (sorry for long OP, i just want to set the stage for the emptiness that could follow)

it's always dangerous and probably bad idea to summarize disparate viewpoints on a complicated issue into bullet points, but they seemed to breakdown like this:

  • it's not appropriate to ask a candidate questions about religion, regardless of the religion. questioning of what an evangelical christian believes could lead to another candidate being asked about sharia law, for example. it gets too close to loyalty oaths and religious tests.
  • it is appropriate to ask about their religion, if their beliefs seem to influence their public decision-making.
(there was also the following very good point, but since it applies more to the specific SCOTUS nomination battle, i'll relegate it to parentheses. sorry aimless :)

  • it is pointless to ask about religion, anyway. candidates are skilled in deflecting, there are better ways to address the same concerns about their actions; it's a waste of time)
i read a really good article (i thought) about this issue this morning, in a publication i've never read before:
("Commonweal's mission is to provide a forum for civil, reasoned debate on the interaction of faith with contemporary politics and culture.")

the article's position can probably be quickly summarized by it's subheadline: "Tests, No; Questions, Yes". but it examines the origins of Article VI clause 3 - “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States." - and also a good case studies:

Last summer, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was accused of violating the Constitution’s clumsily titled “no religious-test clause.” The infrequently invoked rule—Article VI clause 3, to be precise—stipulates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States.” In a heated exchange with Russell Vought, Trump’s pick to fill the position of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sanders appeared to violate the Article VI rule by implying that Vought’s religious beliefs—he’s an Evangelical Christian—disqualified him from public office.

Sanders was troubled by the language in a 2016 blog post in which Vought wrote that Muslims “have a deficient theology” and “stand condemned.” Uninterested in the theological argument Vought was making about the exclusivity of Christianity, Sanders claimed that Vought’s beliefs called into question his ability to serve the entire American public—and especially Muslim-Americans—with equal tolerance and respect.


In his opening remarks, Sanders called Vought’s article “hateful,” “indefensible,” and “an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.” In the question-and-answer session, Sanders continued to press Vought, trying to paint him as intolerant and disrespectful of those who hold different religious faiths. “Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” Sanders asked, referring to Vought’s Resurgent article. “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?” Vought explained repeatedly, “I am a Christian,” and attempted to clarify the context of his argument. But Sanders had little patience. “This nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about,” he concluded.

Sanders’s line of questioning was quickly rebuked by those on the right. David French wrote in National Review that Sanders “personifies the arrogant contempt for Evangelicals that so often marks the secular American elite.” In the secular left’s persistent effort to “drive Evangelicals from the public square,” French insisted, they have become “the intolerant scolds they imagine their foes to be.” In “language and spirit,” French wrote, Sanders had “blatantly violated” Article VI.

Even some mainsteam and left-leaning publications saw Sanders’s remarks as problematic, if not an unconstitutional religious test. In the Atlantic, Emma Green wrote that Sanders “flirted with the boundaries” of our constitutional prohibitions. Ed Kilgore, writing in New York magazine, suggested that Sanders “came pretty close to embracing the kind of ‘religious test’...that is explicitly prohibited by Article VI.” “Complaints about religious liberty aren’t all specious,” he confessed.

But Sanders had his supporters as well. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, wrote in the Huffington Post that Vought’s beliefs about Muslims might compromise his ability to “implement policies and disperse resources without prejudice.” Individuals have the right to hold all sorts of private religious beliefs, Zogby insisted, “but when seeking a position of public trust aren’t we entitled to know whether these beliefs will impact their judgments?”

It was a familiar argument, but a stunning role reversal. Here was James Zogby, a Catholic representing the concerns of Arab Americans, arguing on behalf of a Jewish senator that a Protestant’s religious beliefs disqualify him from public office. For the vast majority of our nation’s history, Vought’s faith would have been an asset, a guarantee that he had the moral character necessary for public service. And for many Americans, it still is. But in our current historical moment, Vought’s Evangelical beliefs were viewed by a sitting senator as an indication of intolerance incompatible with democratic life. The shoe, it seems, is on the other foot.


again, sorry for long OP. there's just a lot to dig into and think about it, and it's not a simple issue.

president of my cat (Karl Malone), Saturday, 17 October 2020 16:21 (two weeks ago) link

I've been participating in an interesting fb thread about the ways in which religious women are subject to yet further religious tests from "secular" opponents. The context is the current Supreme Court nominee, and this article. I am a practicing Catholic in a professional world that thinks that my beliefs and practices are false and irrational, and I have often experienced the mockery of my "secular" colleagues. If I were louder about these things on ILX I'm sure it would be a shitshow here too. The article I linked adds how misogyny gets added to these attacks when the target is a woman.

Here in France we have our own tradition of negotiating these things, and they are very much in the news right now.

All cars are bad (Euler), Saturday, 17 October 2020 17:20 (two weeks ago) link

Most politicians (and SCOTUS nominees) are just fine with volunteering how they identify themselves in terms of religion, so long as it remains in quite broad general strokes, i.e. "I believe in god and attend such-and-such church". Beyond that I can understand wanting to know if a candidate for office believes in Biblical inerrancy or belongs to a sect that expects the apocalypse at a specific date in the near future, as that can have a profound effect on how they think about reality.

But the presumed legitimacy of wanting to know the details of a person's religion mainly rests on wanting to know their positions on genuine political (or judicial) issues they will be called upon to decide during their official duties, so that examining their religious beliefs becomes a proxy for examining their politics.

It seems simpler to me to directly examine their politics and stated positions on those issues. If their beliefs are a controlling factor in their decision making and a cause for concern, then those concerns will certainly arise just as obviously in looking at what they say they want to accomplish in office and why. I don't really need to know their church's position on transubstantiation, the nature of the Paraclete, or inhumation vs. cremation. Better to know how they view the incarceral state, business taxation, or school vouchers. Just saying.

the unappreciated charisma of cows (Aimless), Saturday, 17 October 2020 17:36 (two weeks ago) link

Vought wrote that Muslims “have a deficient theology” and “stand condemned.”

In this particular case, no one needed to ask about this belief. It was loudly and publicly proclaimed. In which case, it is part of the record and becomes grounds for evaluating a person's ideas. Sanders was well within reason to cite it and to draw conclusions from it, since this was a belief that was obviously motivating enough for Vought to seek to develop it and try to persuade others of its fundamental truth. At that point it became political, and not just a private belief.

the unappreciated charisma of cows (Aimless), Saturday, 17 October 2020 17:47 (two weeks ago) link

Yes, I agree that the mere "asking" about the religious beliefs should be no issue, presuming that they directly connect to the political questions under investigation. The problem is when secular people start asking about unrelated issues, like the "Handsmaid" smears against the current nominee. Of course if you think a Catholic's views commit her to positions that threaten the American political order, well, there's a long history of that in American politics.

All cars are bad (Euler), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:03 (two weeks ago) link

Bill Maher's mostly a piece of shit, but he's not wrong about this issue IMO. Irreligious people are under-represented in politics and government (and no, Trump doesn't count, because he pretends to be religious for political expediency). Also, the Supreme Court is turning into a theocratic council, and that's very bad news.

The problem is when secular people start asking about unrelated issues, like the "Handsmaid" smears against the current nominee.

But these are not unrelated issues, it seems to me. Maher quotes Barrett stating that lawyers' function is to help create the kingdom of God on Earth. If a guy in a robe and a turban and a beard said that shit, people would freak the fuck out. When a suburban housewife lawyer/judge says it, people should freak the fuck out, too, because it's religious totalitarianism no matter the sect or the speaker.

Here's the full clip:

but also fuck you (unperson), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:13 (two weeks ago) link

Not all Catholics are insane, or determined to turn the US into a theocracy. But the ones who Republicans pick to be Supreme Court justices certainly seem to be. (N.B.: I was raised Catholic. First communion, confirmation, the whole thing. I left it behind when I moved out of my mother's house at 18.)

but also fuck you (unperson), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:15 (two weeks ago) link

another thing to consider: barrett's own thoughts on the conflict between morality and law, which she summarized in the abstract of "Catholic Judges in Capital Cases" in 1998:

The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty places Catholic judges in a moral and legal bind. While these judges are obliged by oath, professional commitment, and the demands of citizenship to enforce the death penalty, they are also obliged to adhere to their church's teaching on moral matters. Although the legal system has a solution for this dilemma by allowing the recusal of judges whose convictions keep them from doing their job, Catholic judges will want to sit whenever possible without acting immorally. However, litigants and the general public are entitled to impartial justice, which may be something a judge who is heedful of ecclesiastical pronouncements cannot dispense. Therefore, the authors argue, we need to know whether judges are legally disqualified from hearing cases that their consciences would let them decide. While mere identification of a judge as Catholic is not sufficient reason for recusal under federal law, the authors suggest that the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment in such cases as sentencing, enforcing jury recommendations, and affirming are in fact reasons for not participating.

i agree with amy coney barrett in 1998! recuse yourself whenever a case comes up with a conflict between your religious/moral views and the law! so she'll recuse herself on abortion and capital punishment cases, right?

president of my cat (Karl Malone), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:17 (two weeks ago) link

so she'll recuse herself on abortion and capital punishment cases, right?

I wouldn't bet a client's life on it if I was a lawyer...

but also fuck you (unperson), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:18 (two weeks ago) link

1998 Barrett believed that her "moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment", driven by her "church's teaching on moral matters" meant that she should recuse herself from capital punishment cases. "we need to know whether judges are legally disqualified from hearing cases that their consciences would let them decide", she wrote.

how is this different with abortion?

president of my cat (Karl Malone), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:20 (two weeks ago) link

and again, i have to say - with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder - as a nonreligious person, i don't get a secret box where i can hide the real drivers for my beliefs.

why does barrett get a secret box for her beliefs which cannot be opened, and i don't?

president of my cat (Karl Malone), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:21 (two weeks ago) link

...(all in the context of POLITICAL OFFICE, and for the people who have the authority to change the interpretation of laws. i am not talking about why it isn't ok to ask the supermarket cashier if they worship jesus)

president of my cat (Karl Malone), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:22 (two weeks ago) link

(no one ever answers that, which i suppose means that i'm probably saying something bigoted against religious people, but that no one wants to say that because i've been harmed by bigoted religious people and that's obviously why i have a chip on my shoulder)

president of my cat (Karl Malone), Saturday, 17 October 2020 18:43 (two weeks ago) link

i don't get a secret box where i can hide the real drivers for my beliefs.

hmmm. maybe the location and contents of this box is also a secret from you.

the unappreciated charisma of cows (Aimless), Saturday, 17 October 2020 19:01 (two weeks ago) link

i would grant her a secret box if she deserved it, but she's been writing about catholic beliefs and the law forever (e.g., the death penalty/recusal question), and speaking at functions for "christian law students," being a member of campus anti-abortion organizations as a professor, signing letters about abortion, etc. when someone broadcasts the influence of religion on their professional life to the public, they aren't entitled to shut down questions about it. this is separate from the handmaid lifestyle, which i find personally repugnant but don't really care about as much.

my answer to this question is almost at "if their beliefs seem to influence their decision-making," but not quite, because i'm skeptical of the possibility that you can separate those things, and of whether it's even necessary or desirable. i am not a religious person but it just seems like too much to ask, how do you make beliefs not influence your decision-making, especially if the decisions are on moral issues? i just don't believe in "neutrality" like that, if i did i would probably subscribe to another mystical belief system like originalism or something to try and pretend i was neutral. i would prefer if people stopped lying about this possibility and would practice being more open about the interests influencing their decisions. in my secret box, i also think some people just have bad beliefs.

superdeep borehole (harbl), Saturday, 17 October 2020 20:03 (two weeks ago) link

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