In last week’s Republican primary debate, a Jacksonville, Florida, resident asked the candidates what role their religious beliefs would play in their decision-making as President. The issue of religious faith continues to be important for many voters.
As I suggest in a recent WebMemo, questions about religion that relate to a candidate’s potential conduct in office—questions like the one asked by the audience member in Jacksonville—may be useful. Questions about personal religious piety may be less so.
Questions about a candidate’s personal practices when it comes to prayer, church attendance, and leaning on faith during stressful times may provide voters an interesting self-assessment from the candidate and shed some light on the candidate’s ability to endure the inevitable strain of the presidency. Yet candidates’ assurance of their own piety is no guarantee that they will act with integrity once in office. Moreover, short of knowing the candidates personally, it is difficult to confirm whether the candidates’ spiritual self-assessment is genuine. Even if indisputable, religious commitment or good character does not in and of itself guarantee that a candidate will pursue sound public policies.
In contrast to questions about personal religious practices, the Jacksonville resident asked how each candidate’s faith would affect his decisions in office. This kind of question can draw out views about what role faith would play in forming or executing public policies or fulfilling the constitutional duties of the President.
Specifically, this might include how:
…their beliefs reconcile with commanding lethal military operations? And how would their convictions influence their choice of nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court or other federal judgeships? Voters might also want to know whether and to what extent the candidate would follow the Constitution of the United States in the face of a contravening religious authority of the candidate’s faith—whether a sacred text, a religious tradition, or a religious leader.
A candidate’s religious faith may also influence his or her policies on a wide range of issues, such as the source and nature of political authority, the purpose and role of government, and the relationship of government to other social institutions such as families, schools, and religious institutions.
Voters have the right to ask whatever questions they wish and choose their candidate on whatever basis they wish. For those who take religious matters into account, questions about how faith would affect candidates’ governing and decision-making in office are more likely to be helpful than questions about candidates’ personal religious piety.