Does Your Candidate Love Jesus?
presidential hopeful might not have a prayer
Radley Balko | March
A couple of weeks ago, a heckler
interrupted a speech by GOP presidential candidate Mitt
Romney. The heckler shouted pointed questions aimed
squarely at Romneys faith, which, as just about
everyone ought to by now, is Mormon. More interesting was
what Romney said later in the speech: We need a
person of faith to run this country.
For all the talk from the religious right about the
war on Christmas and discrimination against
Christians from the secular left, its interesting
to note just how uncontroversial Romneys
comment was. Frankly, the anti-Mormon bias against Romney
is either being manufactured by his supporters
(conservatives are great at playing the victim card,
too), or is actually coming from other Christian
conservatives. Polls show that seven of ten Americans
would have no problem voting for a Mormon president.
Romney will lose more voters for his position on any
remotely controversial issue than he'll lose because of
where he attends Sunday services. And none of
Romneys opponents have made his faith an issue.
But coming from a candidate whose campaign and supporters
have publicly complained about undue attention paid to
their candidate's spiritual beliefs, Romneys
comment, which basically excluded atheists and agnostics
from the presidency, should have received more
Perhaps it didnt because much of the public agrees
with Romney. A recent Gallup poll found
thatrefreshinglya solid majority of Americans
would have no problem voting for a presidential candidate
who was Catholic, black, female, divorced, elderly,
Mormon, or gay. The only option on the poll that a
majority of Americans couldnt bring themselves to
support? An atheist.
Conservative cultural critic Michael Medved caught
Romneys remark and those poll numbers and weighed
in with an Amen. The Declaration of
Independence makes clear that our inalienable rights come
from God we are endowed by our
Creator, Medved wrote, so that anyone
who openly denies Gods existence is likely to take
the more conventional (and dangerous) view that rights
are a gift from government, not the Deity. The
government giveth, the government taketh away...--
the peril in this approach is too obvious to require
Actually, it isn't
"obvious" at all. One neednt believe in a
creator to believe in natural rights. Philosopher
Immanuel Kant perhaps most famously arrived at a theory
of natural rights absent any overarching deity.
But there are a host of other nonbelieving subscribers to
the idea that we are born with fundamental, inalienable
rights. Many of the most eloquent defenders of natural
rights at the time of Americas founding were
deists, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson,
Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen and, to a lesser extent,
George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison. Deism
isnt atheism (though many deists like Voltaire were
deists only because atheism was illegal), but its a
far cry from devout, too.
In fact, the truly radical thing about the Declaration of
the Independence wasnt its religiosity, it was its
abrupt departure from the centuries-old belief that kings
inherited their power directly from God. It stated that
government doesnt exist on the authority of God;
rather, men are born with inherent, inalienable rights.
Government exists only on the authority of and at the
permission of the governedmen. In this
respect, the Declaration made the case for a less
faith-based form of governance, not more. In fact,
Jeffersons original draft of the document contained
no reference to a deity at all. It was the Congress that
added the word Creator.
Medveds critique grows more absurd when you
consider the fact that our current president (whom Medved
largely supports) has launched a full-scale assault on
our natural rights, in many cases not in spite of his
devout faith, but because of it.
Take the war on terror. President Bush has made no secret
of the fact that the hand of God nudged him into office
at the same time radical Muslims launched the attacks of
September 11. He believes he was put in the White House
by the divinity to fight the war on terrorism.
Since those attacks, his administration has declared that
it has the power to spy on American citizens and foreign
citizens on American soil without a search warrant; to
arrest and detain them without giving them access to a
lawyer; to torture them; to try them without a jury, all
without letting them see the evidence (or in some cases,
even the charges) against them, and with a lower standard
of proof than in other criminal cases. Some of President
Bushs supporters have even argued that the
government should be able to arrest and imprison any
journalists who dare to expose any of this.
And those are just enumerated rights. The power of the
Constitution is not that it grants us the liberties
expressed in the Bill of Rights, it's that it maintains
we retain all rights, save for the small power
we grant to the government to protect those rights. The
Bill of Rights only expressly lists those rights
necessary to preserve all the others. This is why we have
the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. They're redundant, but
James Madison and others thought they were necessary.
This administration has been even
more hostile to unenumerated rights. The White House
believes a sick person (or for that matter, a healthy
person) doesnt have the right to smoke marijuana
for relief; that he doesnt have the right to play a
game of poker over the Internet; and that he doesnt
have the right to consume pornography involving
consenting adultsall within the privacy of his own
home. They don't believe that long-suffering people have
the freedom to end their own lives peacefully and
painlessly. President Bush also believes the federal
government has the power to take money from some people
and use it to buy prescription drugs for other people.
Only a word count limit prevents more examples.
None of these policies is remotely
consistent with the theory that the people have
inalienable natural rights, and that the
governments only powers are those that we the
people grant it in order to protect those rights.
Worse for the assertions of Medved and Romney, it is
morality, and the faith that morality is derived from,
thats driving these policies. Put another way, the
faith of our leaders hasnt instilled in them a
particular compulsion to uphold our natural rights. It
has compelled them to subvert them. Its
probably also worth noting that many (though not all) of
the people resisting these policies are atheist or
agnostic liberals and libertarians.
None of this is to say that religious people arent
capable of respecting our rights. There are of course
countless devout believers who are also eloquent
defenders of liberty.
But to say that a man without religion cant be
trusted to respect our rights is nonsense. Especially
when religious faith has motivated so many of our prior
political leaders to erode them. Not least the man who
currently occupies the White House.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at reason.