While there are strong protections for religious freedom in America, arguments about how religious freedom mixes with legislation has been a contentious topic for as long as the country has existed.
When candidates make it to office, striking a balance between the two is a must, and an issue that has Constitutional connections. After all, the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
So how do the candidates view that separation? How will they uphold it? How would they navigate a conflict between their religious beliefs and their job as President of the United States?
The Des Moines-based Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, a non-profit focused on protecting religious freedom and civil rights, had the chance to ask presidential candidates about those questions — ten responded.
According to their Faith and Democracy project, “In our country today, religion is often used to divide and – more disturbingly – as a means to take away the rights of other people.”
The Influence of Religious Beliefs
Each candidate said politicians should feel free to share how religion shapes their life, too, though it shouldn’t be a requirement. But each one acknowledged that their faith shapes who they are and how they view the world.
For example, both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Steve Bullock cited parts of the Book of Matthew 25 as inspirations.
Warren said it reminds her of two things.
“First, there is God and there is value in every single human being. Second, the Lord calls on us to act. We are not called on to simply observe. We’re not called to just have a good heart. We are called on to act,” she said.
Bullock said, “When I make decisions, when I ask questions and seek information, it is done with the intent of finding a solution that serves people — that is driven by my faith.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg named Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a guide for him.
“My Christian faith helps inform my values and priorities when it comes to protecting the vulnerable — the sick, the stranger, and the poor. It’s also why I am skeptical of the wealthy, the powerful, and the sanctimonious,” Buttigieg said. “If you find inspiration in the Gospel, we should be able to agree that it preaches inclusion, decency, humility, and care for the least among us — no matter your political leanings.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders said his Jewish faith and the historical treatment of the Jewish people is at the core of how he thinks about people’s rights. He said he wouldn’t be running for president if he didn’t have a basis of faith.
“Religious diversity is what America’s beauty is about, but we also have the separation of religion and state and that is something we must protect,” he said.
Others warned that a candidate’s religion should only be used to bring people together, not to ostracize others who hold different beliefs.
“I would hope that if a candidate brings up their personal spiritual values, beliefs, or affiliations, that it would be done so with the purpose of bringing people closer together, not dividing us, or indirectly ‘otherizing’ other candidates because those candidates may not be of the majority religious faith or may hold no faith,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard wrote. “In other words, a candidate’s religion or the religion of an opposing candidate should never weaponized.”
Managing the Separation
The Interfaith Alliance asked three questions about where the line falls for each candidate:
- What are the proper boundaries between religion and government?
- How will you balance the principles of your faith or beliefs with your obligation to defend the Constitution, particularly if the two come into conflict?
- How would you seek to balance the conflicting religious and civil rights of citizens?
The candidates all had a slightly different take on how the two mix and the amount of conflict they generate, but each one was firm on the existence of a separation and the need to uphold it.
They also agreed about the Constitution coming before their personal beliefs.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke on civil rights vs religious rights: “Beto believes that the civil rights of citizens necessarily include the religious rights of citizens. The Constitution explicitly protects the right to the free exercise of religion and an O’Rourke administration will welcome and protect adherents of all faiths. Beto will also protect civil rights from those who use religious justifications to undermine access to reproductive care, LGBTQ+ equality, or equal pay for women.”
His position is similar to that expressed by most of the candidates who said civil rights should never be undermined by others’ religious rights and no one has the freedom to impose their religion on others.
Some, like former Rep. John Delaney, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, don’t think there’s a conflict.
“I do not think there is a conflict between protecting civil rights, especially for vulnerable members of our society, and protecting the free exercise of religion,” Delaney said. “In the U.S. people have the freedom to worship as they see fit, and the government should never adopt policies that favor one religious group over another. Civil rights legislation…appropriately prohibits discrimination in public accommodations and government services without infringing on religious freedom.”
Klobuchar said she thinks a balance can be struck between the two.
“Senator Klobuchar believes that religious freedom is never an either/or question. She will strive to promote the equal rights and dignity of all people, while ensuring that we are protecting religious liberty.”
In the end, Sen. Cory Booker said there’s more that binds the country together when it comes to their beliefs, whether those are religious or not.
“Most Americans, whether they are religious or not, share a common moral framework based on justice and love,” Booker said. “I don’t need to talk about religion to talk about those ideals that all Americans hold dear.”
You can read all the candidates’ answers here.
by Nikoel Hytrek