Elected officials and ReligionI was discussing with some friends of mine the huge issue of John F. Kennedy's being Catholic as he was running for President.  How much do you consider a person's...

Elected officials and Religion

I was discussing with some friends of mine the huge issue of John F. Kennedy's being Catholic as he was running for President.  How much do you consider a person's religious beliefs or lack of them when you cast your vote for political candidates? In today's technology overabundance, where should the line be drawn on a candidate's private life, and how much do you think the public should know in order to make an educated decision before casting his/her vote? 

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An example of a state in which religious beliefs interfere with the governing process is the state of Alabama.  Because a certain sect of the Religious Right virtually controls the state's government, there is no state lottery (gambling is a "sin"); consequently, education and other areas suffer--especially since the property taxes are so low!  When one man was elected as governor, he had the institution of a state lottery as part of his platform.  However, after he was elected, the Puritans opposed him  strongly, falsely declaring that they had "another plan."  They defeated the lottery because of their power. In truth, there was no other plan, and clandestine dealings occurred to the detriment of the schools, etc.  Now, many Alabamans travel to Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi to purchase lottery tickets, donating to these states.  Ironically, the current governor, who is of this right-wing conservative Christian group, took campaign contributions from the casinos of Mississippi.  This is documented and billboards advertise this hypocrisy as the governor now is shutting down bingo in Alabama all the while Native American casinos operate because they fall under the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

These Alabama politicians fight gambling even though they had to know that the Federal Law would prevail for the Native Americans.  Clearly, this illustrates that their actions are done for political reasons in order to secure the vote from the Religious Right.

There is no doubt that religious zealots can have a profound effect upon government, as can those of no religion.  While one expects a separation of church and state, religious affiliations often become special interest groups, apart from the ethics of a person.


marbar57 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I try not to think about a person's personal life in terms of whether they're fit to be President or not.  What matters most is if that person has the qualifications laid out in our Constitution.  If a candidate believes in and tries to implement Constitutional values, laws, and principles, they pretty much have a pretty decent personal life! 

Some people argue that a person's personal life spills over into politics, but as a common citizen, it's none of my business what goes on at home and it shouldn't be anybody else's either!  The media loves to "dig up the dirt" about politicians in an effort to nullify any good they do and to vilify them in the public's eye so they lose confidence in them.

Whether a politician has an illigitimate child or grandchild, or they or their offispring has done drugs as a teenager is beside the point!  What can they offer us as our nation's leader?  Will they uphold and sustain the Constitution?  Will they obey the laws of the land?  Will they be unswayed by party politics and help our country move forward?  Those are issues that should be considered.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that the aspect of religion is probably not as demonizing as it was when JFK was running.  I think that the implications of one's religious beliefs are probably more scrutinized as they could be reflective of policies passed and beliefs embraced.  If a candidate is zealously Christian, there is a greater likelihood that a fundamentalist lobby group is supporting the candidate.  Religion is a private issue in my mind.  Where it becomes public is when it is an issue of campaign financing and how the candidate nods to different religious groups or if there is a favoring of one form of religious worship over another.  The Constitution and our system do a fairly good job of ensuring that secularism itself is the principle upon which our government functions.  Yet, the financing element and the presence of money is something that I believe is able to be observed and noted by the public.

kjcdb8er eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Religion is an important consideration for me in these respects: the candidate should not have a history of imposing his moral framework on others; if the candidate subscribes to a particular religion, does he follow its moral code, or is he a hypocrite? Do his religious views in general support strong individual character? And does the candidate believe in something greater than himself (that I can relate to, naturally).

For me, its not enough that an individual has led an apparently moral life; I want to know why they live that way, and what might change their mind on what is moral to impose on others and what is not. People can justify actions against large groups of people that they would never commit personally against another individual in the name of "common good", or because it doesn't affect those they know.


Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I see a flaw in logic here, and that is assuming that "religious" means morally sound. I am instantly suspicious of those who wear their religion on their sleeves instead of communicating their spiritual beliefs through their deeds. In terms of Christianity, I read this quote somewhere this week. "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than sitting in the garage makes you a car." In supporting any political candidate, I am more concerned with what he/she does (and has done in terms of leadership and public service) rather than what he/she says.

I just finished reading "The Appeal" by John Grisham. Anyone with concerns about mixing politics with religion should read it. It is fiction, but there's truth there, too. Very disturbing.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I want a candidate whose religious precepts don't come before the welfare of the State.  I want a candidate who will represent those often without a voice (the unborn, the elderly, the disabled) but will not show preference because of race, gender, culture, or religion.  Morals do matter to me.  If a man (or woman, of coourse) will break a covenant/commitment he made before God by cheating on his wife, I have no reason to expect he will be honest in his dealings with or for me.  He is speaking and acting and deciding on my behalf, so I want someone whom I trust.  Now, how can I know that with any certainty?  Guess I can't--look at the John Edwards affair and how close he got to the Presidency.  But I try.

ktmagalia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I wouldn't vote for a political leader based on religious belief alone; however, does it sway my vote? I'd have to say that it can and has.   Everyone has their own moral compas, values that we hold dear, beliefs that drive us on an every day basis.  Of course we want  leaders who will hold some, if not all, of the same beliefs as these will impact his or her decisions in office.  A political leader who doesn't believe in saluting the flag, doesn't observe the day of prayer, and who doesn't follow the Ten Commandments, will have a hard time getting my vote.  Right or wrong, one can't help admit that adulterous behavior is doom to a politician.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Very difficult one, isn't it, as in a sense a person's religious stance is a very important part of their make up as a person and will obviously impact the way they look at the world and their policy decisions. Yet at the same time surely a person has the right to run for office without their personal opinions and beliefs poured over and scrutinised by all and sundry. It is interesting how some politicians definitely "use " their religion to gain votes from certain sectors of the country - which does seem to be pretty polarised in terms of Christianity and views on important issues such as homosexuality and abortion.

dastice eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When voting, my only concern with a candidate's religion is whether or not it affects their stance on abortion rights.  Beyond that, I could really care less.  Certainly many politicians have behaved in ways that have contradicted their religious beliefs, so I would not consider religion to be any indicator of a moral compass.

A political leader does not need to lead a virtuous life to get my vote either.  Some of our greatest presidents were adulterers.  As long as a politician's private life does not get in the way of his or her job duties, I think the public should stay out of it.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Religious belief is not a prerequisite for my vote, since we have very well protected freedom of religion in this country I am not worried about biases for or against religions that a candidate might have.  However, I don't vote for those who blatantly bring religion into policymaking and ideology, or those who clearly intend to violate or blur the separation of church and state.  I believe there needs to be a commitment to represent all Americans, all 310 million of us, in our political, ethnic and religious diversity, regardless of specific faith.  I believe that's what democracy is.

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For me, the question is not so much what are the person’s religious beliefs (if any), as it is whether s/he has a track record of imposing them on others via legislation, judicial decisions, etc. I would not use religion as a single-issue litmus test for deciding on whether to vote for a candidate, but I would certainly not vote for a candidate who had a history of attempting to impose his own beliefs onto the electorate. I think the Kennedy situation was a case of “mass hysteria” on the part of non-Catholics, and I hope that we have come way beyond that mindset as a nation.

besure77 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A candidates religious affiliation would not the deciding factor on whether or not I vote for that particular candidate. Is what I think is important is if the candidate has a good, strong set of morals and ethical values. A person can be moral and ethical without being affiliated with a specific church. I think that the public does need to be educated on the candidate because that is how we know what kind of person they are.

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A candidate's religious beliefs wouldn't mean anything to me except in two intances: (1) if the person was an avowed atheist or (2) if the person was a strict Muslim. I wouldn't vote for an atheist because we would probably disagree on too many issues. I wouldn't vote for a strict Muslim (one who makes women cover their faces, etc.) because I would not trust that person to represent the interests of all his constituents.

martinjmurphy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't necessarily look at a peron's religion when deciding to cast my votes.  I do look at how a person lives his life which is probably influenced by a person's religious views.  Then again, some people who claim to follow certain religions don't quite live up to those beliefs.  And then there are people who don't claim to follow any religion, but lead good, moral lives--those are the people I can vote for.

picturesque | Student

I think religion and the matter of states should not be mixed. And one should not vote for a person keeping in mind his or her religious beliefs. Because it's possible that in a Christianity populated country a Muslim candidate might have better administrative qualities than a Christian candidate.

npoore84 | Student

What religion someone is doesn't determine whether or not they would be a good president/elected official or not. But some of the things that they stand for can influence my vote. It is important to keep the idea of separation of church and state when creating laws and it is possible for someone's vote to be swayed when creating these laws because of what they stand for. But this is not always the case.

Previous governor of Utah John Huntsman is a practicing Latter-Day Saint. Latter-day Saints believe that the consumption of any alcoholic drinks is wrong and should be avoided. For many year, it has been illegal to buy alcoholic drinks in Utah on Sunday. This came to the docket in 2008 and Governor Huntsman passed it into law that it was okay to purchase alcoholic drinks on Sunday. He was one of the best governor's Utah had in a long time and his religious beliefs did not sway Huntsman and he later promoted to be an ambassador to China for the federal government.

Personally, what someone stands for on difficult decisions such as abortion or gay marriage can and would sway my vote because of the things I stand for. But, these things should not be heavily weighed when deciding who to vote for. What should be weighed is their political experience and what their plans are when they achieve office. Do they have the good of America and its citizens at heart or is it just a popularity contest?


dancer7 | Student

In this short movie clip, conservative christian pastor Gregory Boyd explains why it is a tragic mistake for conservative Christians to believe  they should try to gain political power. It is beautifully wise... 


frizzyperm | Student

Obviously, there is a well-known paradox here. It goes like this,

Statement 1) Religion and Politics are not compatible and must be kept distinctly separate, by Law, for the good of everyone.

Statement 2) In a democracy no-one may be barred from running for public office.

So, of course, this begs the question... what about religious people who want to be politicians? Religion may not influence politics, but religious people may not be barred from politics. There is no way to square this circle, it is a permanent grey area. So religion can stroll right into the heart of Politics, inside the head of the president, despite democracy's declared intention to keep it out. Clearly democracy is imperfect and the essential task of keeping church and state separate requires constant vigilance and endless squabbling. Especially in our current times. Undeniably, religious organisations are non-democratic power-structures and should be kept as far from democracy as possible. But how can we deal with religiously-minded politicians?

Personally, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of strongly religious people in high-office, they cannot possibly isolate their belief from their work. And I definitely do not want a president who genuinely prays to an imagined super-being for moral guidance. But, tragically, there is a large minority of people who want religious leaders in America, and this is such a misguided aspiration. The result of these peoples' influence is that there is currently no American Senator or Governor who admits to being a non-believer. How many of our politicians are lying about their religious committment? It's hard to say, but I'd be surprised if Obama was a serious believer. Yet he has to appear religious to get elected President. It was not always that way. Check out this 2-minute video of early American presidential quotes on Christianity.


Now see how far we have fallen backwards...


Political leaders who have strong religious beliefs are ultimately a threat to democracy because they may wish to defer their democratic power to a non-democratic authority (God). But perhaps more dangerous is a naive, strongly-religious electorate because they are vulnerable to cynical, manipulative, power-hungry politicians; Seneca nailed it perfectly with this quote

Religion is regarded by the common people as true; by the wise as false; and by rulers... as useful.