Monday, April 23, 2012
But Can an Atheist Be President?
In an op-ed piece in today's USA Today ("No 'religious test' in politics" – April 23, 2012) Michael Medved notes, quite correctly, that Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says explicitly "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Mr. Medved pointed out that the language "left so little doubt as to its meaning that not even the most imaginative jurists or politicians have attempted to interpret it away."
Voters do, of course, have every right to evaluate a candidate for office on the basis of his personal character and integrity, and these are generally tied to a strong sense of morality, and morality, in turn, is often tied to religion. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, put it like this: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." He went on to add, "And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."
And yet in actual practice it does not always seem to work out that way. We sometimes encounter dedicated public servants with a strong sense of integrity and yet with an apparent lack of religious attachment. Mr. Medved cites two examples in particular, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
How can this be? The case of Lincoln is especially intriguing. Lincoln saw the Civil War as a kind of moral crusade, and he often laced his speeches with biblical metaphors. Yet he was never baptized and never joined a church. His theology, as far as we can discern it, was hardly orthodox. While he respected and appreciated religion, for some reason he could not embrace it as his own. How then did he acquire such a strong moral sensitivity? He had a conscience, of course. He also had a religious upbringing and knew the Bible well. What he apparently lacked was "the new birth."
Yet neither Jefferson nor Lincoln were atheists. They both believed in God. Jefferson could write: "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? . . . Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. . ." (Notes on Virginia). And Lincoln could say "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . ." (Second Inaugural). They firmly believed that a moral order exists in the universe, and that that order originated with a wise and beneficent Creator.
Can our liberties be save in the hands of someone who does not believe in moral absolutes, divine providence, or eternal rewards and punishments?