When considering qualifications of candidates for elected office, how much weight should be put on personal matters not directly related to the job?
It's a question many voters are asked and sometimes told to consider virtually every election cycle and at least when national or state offices are up for grabs. And there are plenty of examples of campaigns and outside interest groups using aspects of candidates personal lives to cast doubt on their qualifications for office.
One personal attribute that seems to always raise its head, sometimes an ugly one, is that of a candidate's religious beliefs.
This is nothing new. In 1960 then presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kennedy's abilities to lead the country were attacked because of his Catholic beliefs. And in 1976 Gov. Jimmy Carter made no bones about his own beliefs as a devout Baptist.
Religion in public office has always played some role, but since the 1970s and the rise in influence of Christian conservatives, the “Moral Majority,” it seems to have become more of a lightning rod for sectors of the voting populace. So the question might be, how important is religion in politics to the rest of the country?
According to a March 2012 Pew Research study, 38 percent of Americans said politicians talked too much about religion, compared with just 12 percent in 2001. By contrast, 30 percent said there was too little, an increase of 8 percent since 2001 but a significant drop from 41 percent who felt this way in 2003. Also, 25 percent felt the amount of religious talk from politicians was just right, way down from the 60 percent who checked this box in 2001.
Pew also found that 54 percent of those polled felt churches should keep out of politics, up from 43 percent in 1996, while just 40 percent said churches should express views on social and political questions, down from 54 percent 16 years ago. These results indicate a public desire to see less of religion in politics.
Granted, Pew's study came during the height of the Republican presidential primary when candidates were trying to out-pious each other daily while at times questioning others, notably the now presumptive nominee former Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon.
Since the end of the primary Romney's campaign and that of president Barack Obama, whose own religious beliefs came under attack in 2008 for his association with the radical, outspoken pastor Jeremiah Wright, have held off discussing religion. This is a welcome relief since such debate tends to inflame emotions that blur focus on matters truly affecting all of us.
There's no telling how long this will last. The election season is ramping up and neither campaign controls the message of outside groups who see religious beliefs as more important. Which begs the question posed in the first paragraph.
Religious beliefs do serve a purpose among many people, helping provide clarity and focus along with a conduit with which to act. But some research has shown that central moral aspects claimed by religion, concern for one's fellow human being and a desire for social justice, might be as much a common inborn human trait as those bestowed by belief in a higher power.
Would a candidate with a deeply held religious belief make decisions affecting all of us based upon beliefs held by just a few of us? Would an atheist stand a chance of getting elected?
We have no right or wrong answers.
We would just hope those who use religion in their voting choices also consider other aspects of a candidate that, while not holding the same beliefs as the voter, point to a shared concern for our collective well being. And for those who do not hold religious beliefs, remember there's more to leading than just economics.