The Christian Question
In the midst of reporting about the Saddleback forum, cnn.com provided a flashback to a incident back last December involving Senator McCain and the question of his faith. This was of course when the Senator from Arizona wasn’t the “presumptive” nominee, but a struggling candidate trying to get on track.
During a campaign stop in South Carolina, a gentleman asked Senator McCain: “I was wondering if you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?” McCain responded:
I am a man of faith. I have deep religious beliefs and values. I had experiences in my life where I had to rely on God not to get me through another day or another hour but another minute.
When the questioner pressed, McCain answered:
I also believe that talking too much about one’s faith and religion, in my view, is something between me and God.
While reviewing the article, I wondered how Richard Nixon would have answered the question. According to his writings in In The Arena, while RN thought that faith and religion were important in American society, he was uncomfortable with public pronouncements:
My reticence about public displays of religious faith flows both from the style of my family’s religious observances and from a belief that God’s will is expressed by men through their actions toward and on behalf of others….It would have been out of character, even demagogic, for me to inject my personal religious faith into my speeches.
The Senator’s answer concerns me less than the question does. In reading his answer, I sense the Senator’s discomfort. I feel uncomfortable about the question as well. On an employment application, questions about one’s faith are illegal…unless of course one applies for a position where one’s faith is important to the job.
I understand that most present will state that the question goes to personal character. However, as historians, and as presidential historians, we should also know that character takes many forms. Belief and faith are not the determining factor in character.
After all, as RN wrote in Arena:
[T]he basic teachings of religion, especially those that have to do with people’s relationships with one another, can easily be translated into secular terms. You don’t have to believe in God to honor your parents, or to be honest in your business dealings, or to treat others as you would have them treat you.
Another element about the question that concerns me is the precedent that it sets in American politics. Are we going to make a belief in God, or being a Christian a litmus test for national office? The implications of this are troubling for me.
Guess that I’m nostalgia for another time in which a candidate for national office didn’t have to profess his faith or belief to win votes. After all, the President of the United States leads the country — Democrats and Republicans, and believers and non-theists alike.