One of the few references about religion in the U.S. Constitution is the declaration that that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Yet, not far from where the primary author of the Constitution lived, such a simple statement is now being ignored.
Augusta County Supervisor Tracy Pyles has attacked the religiosity of fellow Democrat Erik Curren, who is running for the 20th district delegate seat. According to Pyles, Curren is not an acceptable candidate because he follows some Buddhist practices in addition to worshipping in a Christian church. Yet, such issues should be irrelevant when deciding between candidates. What voters should instead consider is who has the better policy proposals and vision to bring about what citizens of the Valley and other parts of Virginia need.
Applying such religious tests for office creates a new class of civic lepers that—as in biblical times—must be avoided at all costs. This exclusionary rhetoric therefore undermines basic American democratic values of equality and freedom. To politically excommunicate a candidate just because we disagree with their religious beliefs is to ignore the wisdom of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
Sadly, this current controversy is not the first attempt to find political salvation by urging voters to treat elections as catechism tests. A few years ago, Virginia U.S. Representative Virgil Goode attacked a Minnesota congressman because the man is a practicing Muslim, and Barack Obama faced questions and attacks about his religion throughout the 2008 presidential election. Hopefully, voters in Virginia’s 20th district will stand up against the misuse of religion as a political weapon. After all, such politicization of religion not only undermines democratic principles but also cheapens faith. As a committed Christian and former pastor, I am appalled that someone would treat what I find holy as if it was just another dirty political trick.
Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy faced religious bigotry on the campaign trail. He argued that the questions about his religion took attention away from more important issues. He said he really wanted to focus on “the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms—an America with too many slums, with too few schools.” Virginia voters should focus on similar critical concerns facing us today, rather than the religious practices of candidates. My prayer is that voters would adopt the wisdom of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who suggested he would even support a Muslim leader when he said, “I would rather be governed by a competent Turk than by an incompetent Christian.”