Are Candidates Running
for Bishop or for President?
by Alan M. Dershowitz
Los Angeles Times
September 3, 1999
When I was growing up in the 1950s, my friends would argue about whether a Jew or a Catholic could ever become president. Then John F. Kennedy, a Catholic committed to the separation of church and state, was elected, and everyone said that the most exclusive club in the world was no longer restricted to Protestants; anyone could be president. Now the doors are once again being shut in the face of anyone who has not found Jesus.
The current campaign for president, which has not even officially begun, is promising to become the most anticonstitutional election in American history. The U.S. Constitution expressly provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office." Yet virtually all candidates are acting as if they are cramming for the religious test of their lives. They are trying to outdo each other in proclaiming their belief in Jesus and their status as born-again Christians. It is as if they were running for bishop rather than president, for defender of the faith rather than defender of the Constitution.
The leading candidate for presidential Evangelist is GOP contender George W. Bush, who consistently proclaims that "my faith tells me that the acceptance of Jesus Christ as my savior is my salvation, and I believe that."
The Texas governor makes these confessions of faith not to his minister or his family but to the voters, thus rendering to Caesar what is none of Caesar's constitutionally permitted business.
Other Republicans try to outdo the front-runner in their religious fervor. Elizabeth Dole tells voters about "a talk" she had with God. I wonder if she persuaded him to vote Republican.
Pat Buchanan attacks non-Christians as immoral, while Alan Keyes blames all social ills on "a collective loss of faith in God's authority," thus implying that if he is elected, he will make sure that collective faith in God is found, if not imposed.
Even Democratic front-runner Al Gore is waving the flag of faith, declaring himself a "child of the Kingdom." Since swearing allegiance to foreign monarchies is unconstitutional for a vice president, Gore must be referring to the "kingdom of Christ," of which many of us are not subjects.
In observing this dramatic increase in political "Godtalk," many are ignoring its discriminatory impact on non-Christians. Although there are currently no Jewish candidates for president, many Jews now hold elective office. It is a reality that Jews often tend not to speak publicly about their theology or faith. This is partly as a result of a long history of persecution directed against Jews for refusing to declare publicly their belief in a particular god or a particular messiah.
In a country that is predominantly Christian, most voters have a Christian view of God and of theology. Non-Christians do not benefit from highlighting their differences. It is in the nature of all religion that it believes that other religions are wrong or incomplete. Political "Godtalk" is really political "Jesus talk," which necessarily discriminates against those who do not accept Jesus as their savior.
In 1993 Bush declared that, according to his belief, people who do not accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior cannot go to heaven. This, of course, excludes all Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and even many Christians who reject Bush's particularistic theology. Now that he is running for president, Bush as tried to mend some fences by saying that "It's not the governor's role to decide who goes to heaven. I believe that God decides who goes to heaven, not George W. Bush."
But Bush's god had decided to shut the door to heaven to the rest of us. Even if it is not the governor's role to decide who goes to heaven, it is surely the president's role to decide who goes on the Supreme Court and who fills other appointed positions. It is doubtful that a man like Bush, who apparently believes that only Christians are worthy of a heavenly afterlife, would feel comfortable appointing to positions of trust those who he believes are destined for hell.
The time has come for voters to insist that candidates stop running on their religious beliefs. Jesus condemned as hypocrites those who prayed near the doorways in order to be seen. Our Constitution condemns excessive entanglements between church and state. Any candidate for president who does not support our constitutional wall of separation between church and state is not qualified to hold our highest office.