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The Questions That Each Presidential Candidate Should Be Asked Regarding His or Her Views on the Constitutional Line Between Church and State


Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008

The Constitution proscribes any "religious test oath" for officeholders. In other words, no candidate for political office may constitutionally be required to swear to support any particular religion. Rather, anyone holding any belief, or holding no religious belief at all, has the right to run for political office.

While the Constitution rightly opens public office to all believers, at the same time, the First Amendment imposes obligations regarding the relationship between church and state. On this issue, I have some pointed questions for each of the current presidential candidates, regarding their views of church/state relations. Below are the questions I would ask if a debate on this topic were held today:

There are more pointed questions for most of the Republicans and for Hillary Clinton, than for the other candidates, because their histories often have brought faith to the center of attention. Neither John Edwards nor Barack Obama has a record that indicates that faith drives his public decisionmaking, which led me to ask more general questions of each of them.

The Republicans

Rudy Giuliani

When you were New York's Mayor, you tried to shut down the Brooklyn Art Museum's display because it included a Madonna painted with elephant dung. Though experts explained that this was a form of veneration in Africa, you found the painting offensive to Catholics, and used your office as Mayor to ensure that Catholics were not offended. You did not win that battle in court, but your position on church/state separation was brought into question.

There is a far larger question before you now: As you well know, the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy is embroiled in a debacle involving numerous instances of childhood sexual abuse by clergy and other employees. As I have written in a past column, you have kept in your employ, despite much public criticism, Alan Placa, a former priest credibly accused of engaging in the sexual abuse of children. You have even gone so far, according to some reports, to question whether Placa, in fact, might not have done what prosecutors have strong evidence he did.

Just how far are you willing to go to protect your church from the operation of the law, especially when criminal activity is involved? Based on your past performance, your personal loyalty to your church appears to have trumped your obligations to the Constitution and the law.

Mike Huckabee

You have made your position clear regarding the separation of church and state -- you obviously believe that there should be none, at least when it comes to conservative Christianity and the state. There is surely no need for further analysis on that point; we have plenty of experience with this world view in the current Administration.

But I do have another question regarding how, as President, you would handle scientific questions, given your rejection of evolution and your embrace of creationism. What exactly are your criteria for rejecting settled scientific opinions backed by numerous, impressive experts at the world's leading universities? Given that the President must deal with cutting-edge technical questions affecting the military, NASA, and the FDA, among others, citizens have a right to know when you will gather the best expert advice and take it seriously, and when you will look to the Bible to guide your scientific conclusions.

In particular, here is a test case that might come into play with respect to, say, NASA: Since you reject the well-established scientific deductions behind evolution, do you also reject the scientific-mathematical deductions used to determine how many light years separate planets and stars from the sun and the earth? When, as President, would you be most likely to reject expert advice in favor of the Bible's teachings?

John McCain

In a 2000 speech in Virginia Beach, you said the following: "[M]y faith [is] the faith that unites and never divides; the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity. It is the faith I would die to defend." How does this statement translate into presidential actions?

Let me be more specific: In a prior column, I described the debacle caused by Sens. Kennedy and Santorum, who are Catholic, when they tried to give away land owned by the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, DC, to Catholic University for pennies on the dollar. Luckily, veterans were alerted to the bill that Kennedy and Santorum had slid into other legislation, and to avoid litigation (which I promised I would to file on behalf of the veterans if they went forward), they amended the law to at least require submission of bids in a competitive process. Veterans contacted you about the issue, and you stood for them, and against Santorum and Kennedy, when they needed you to. This is a very different attitude toward religious lobbyists than other representatives possess.

What is your view on federal subsidization of religion in other contexts? We can start with the Faith-Based Initiative. Have you studied which religious organizations have been the beneficiaries of this program, and why it seems to have been skewed to certain ones? Does that concern you? And how do you compare these programs with the pork-barrel spending you have so often publicly criticized?

Mitt Romney

As to Mitt Romney, I asked what I thought needed to be asked in a previous column for this site.

Fred Thompson

You are the only candidate who has made an impassioned pitch for federalism or states' rights, a cornerstone of the Reagan agenda. When pressed by evangelical Christians on your positions regarding abortion and other privacy issues, you stuck to your federalism guns. Rev. Richard Land, among others, refused to back your candidacy because you were not willing to make such issues national, rather than state-level, issues.

Now that you have been on the campaign trail for a while, do you regret your decision to support states' rights when the issues involve hot-button religio-moral issues like abortion and gay rights? If so, why? If not, why not?

The Democrats

Hillary Clinton

Would you continue your husband's legacy, while he was President, of currying favor with religious organizations and entities? Although President Bush has been far more public about it, President Clinton, first, made a point of attending prayer breakfasts and consulting the views of prominent conservative Christians. No one can criticize a President for seeking spiritual guidance, but his actions regarding religion did not end with private contemplation and solace. Instead, he initiated the "charitable choice" programs, and set the stage for President Bush to bring the evangelical Christians to political power.

Bill Clinton also did more for religion, as a President, than any President before him (except Grant, who tried to Christianize those who were called "Indians" at the time), by enthusiastically signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RFRA was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores as unconstitutional, because Congress and the President had put themselves in the position to amend the meaning of the First Amendment, and had overstepped federal power to the detriment of the states . RLUIPA, meanwhile, has been a disaster for residential neighborhoods trying to maintain their character in the face of ambitious building projects by religious landowners.

Do you truly believe in the separation of church and state? Or, would you continue your husband's legacy of backing legislation to benefit of religious entities, without consideration of those who would be harmed by such legislation? For example, would you support the legislation Senator Kennedy has proposed that would immunize churches from the government's eminent domain decisions?

John Edwards

You have been careful, in the public square, to distinguish between personal faith and public obligations. In an interview with the Interfaith Alliance in 2003, you said, for instance, "[F]or any publicly elected official, your responsibility is to abide by and enforce the Constitution, and meet your constitutional duties. My personal faith guides and affects my personal decisions in my personal life. But as President of the United States I have a constitutional responsibility to all of the American people, which means, to all people of all faiths. So I think you have to be very, very careful to not let your own personal faith beliefs, particularly where they may differ with other faith beliefs, to influence national policy."

In light of these views, what do you make of Mike Huckabee's success in Iowa, where his personal, specific beliefs plainly swayed voters to vote for him? And how does that portend for the future of the United States as a whole, not just during this election?

Barack Obama

Sojourners Magazine ran an excerpt of one of your speeches in November 2006, in which you stated the following: "[G]iven the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."

Now that you have been on the campaign trail for over a year since then, what conclusions do you draw about the religious diversity of the American people? What is the value of diversity? And what, specifically, are the dangers of sectarianism that would most concern you as President?

Marci A. Hamilton is a Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the Kathleen and Martin Crane Senior Research Fellow at the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Professor Hamilton's forthcoming book, which will be published this spring is entitled Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). Professor Hamilton's email address is

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