Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary looms large on the political horizon. In the midst of lively public debates over taxes, jobs, the national debt and similarly important questions related to the future vitality of our nation, a different kind of question continues to privately occupy the minds of some prospective voters: Can I vote for a Mormon?
This is an important question in our constitutional democracy. Without endorsing or even praising (much less criticizing) any candidate, I strongly encourage Americans who would ask this question of themselves to consider and weigh thoughtfully our nation’s constitutional traditions. At their best, those are traditions of welcoming religious forbearance.
To support this proposition, I return to the founding of our constitutional republic — boasting as we rightly do the oldest Constitution in the history of the planet. Only 27 amendments have been ratified to that basic document over our 222 years as a representative democracy. In fashioning this remarkably enduring document, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia made it absolutely clear that no religious test should ever be imposed to hold office. The Founders also made clear that religious dissenters (such as the Quakers) should not be compelled to take an oath if doing so would be a violation of conscience. Building on those twin pillars of tolerance, the Supreme Court at its finest moments has likewise vigorously defended the right of all persons to participate in the democratic process, including holding office, without the burden of religious tests or qualifications.
According to the American political tradition, there are essential questions by which all office seekers are qualified, regardless of their faith journey or history. The first is: Does the candidate subscribe completely to our constitutional structure, including freedom of conscience for persons of all faiths — or no faith? A second question for the thoughtful voter is related to and flows from the first: Will the candidate subscribe, without any “mental hesitation or purpose of evasion,” to the oath to protect and defend America’s Constitution? If the answers to those closely connected questions are yes, then voters should proceed to cast their ballot on the basis of the candidate’s qualifications, platform and policy positions — not the candidate’s membership (or lack thereof) in a particular faith community.
In fact, a number of great presidents have come to the White House without membership in any faith community. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and was vigorously attacked for his religious views (or lack thereof). Abraham Lincoln, as a matter of conscience, refused to join any church. Yet our nation’s capital rightly dedicates two of its most stately monuments to those two men of unorthodox spiritual worldviews.
More recently, the great cultural chasm between Catholics and Protestants was politically overcome with the election of John F. Kennedy. Similarly, then-Vice President Al Gore’s choice of Sen. Joe Lieberman, a practicing Jew, as his running mate in 2000 signaled the welcoming openness of America’s democratic experience to individuals who did not share the Christian faith but were honorable statesmen of steely commitment to America’s constitutional principles.
In my own life, I have drawn great strength from my religious practices and, according to the teachings of my faith tradition, I intend to continue to keep in prayer those who are chosen to lead our nation. That said, the litmus for our elected leaders must not be the church they attend but the Constitution they defend.
Citizens as voters do well when they pause to reflect on our nation’s history and traditions. If an unbeliever such as Jefferson or non-churchman like Lincoln can serve brilliantly as president, then America should stand — in an intolerant world characterized all too frequently by religious persecution — as a stirring example of welcoming hospitality for highly qualified men and women of good will seeking the nation’s highest office. Life experience, personal qualities and policy views are the pivotal points to guide Americans as they go to the polls in 2012.
Ken Starr, a former special prosecutor, is president of Baylor University.