The news that a poll had found nearly one American in five convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim prompted a predictable response: No, he isn’t—he’s a Christian. He just doesn’t like to talk about it much. According to Joshua DuBois, White House advisor on faith-related matters, “the president’s spiritual life…is something that is important to him not for communications reasons or political reasons.”
Fair enough. Different presidents have handled this matter in very different ways. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, for instance, wore their faith on their sleeves. If Obama would rather not do that, I not only respect his decision but, for reasons of personal temperament and taste, feel sympathetic to it. No matter how sincere public displays of religiosity may be, when a president advertises his faith the line between advertising and exploiting is easily crossed.
But the Obama-as-Muslim flap points to a different sort of problem. Too much presidential reticence regarding his beliefs can only exacerbate confusions that may already exist. We need to strike a reasonable balance here—a golden mean between too much and too little public display of presidential faith. Here are three principles offered as a modest contribution to that.
First, it’s essential to bear in mind that our constitutional tradition bars any religious test for office. Adherence or non-adherence to some form of faith shouldn’t automatically exclude anyone from election to anything. This is one of the essential pillars of a pluralistic nation grounded in religious toleration.
Second, presidents not only may but should share their views on fundamental questions of human dignity and rights. Doing that comes with the job and should be required of anyone who aspires to the office. If the views are religiously based, that should not only be expected but applauded.
Third, as already noted, a president is entitled to do as he wishes when it comes to public displays of his personal faith. All the same, though, every chief executive needs to take seriously the teaching function of the office he occupies, and from that perspective occasional public reminders that a president is a person of faith who tries to shape his conduct in its light are not just acceptable but highly desirable.
By coincidence, the attention currently being paid these matters coincides with the 50th anniversary of an event that did as much as anything in modern times to befog understanding of the issues at stake. I refer to John F. Kennedy’s famous talk to the Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, at the height of his presidential campaign.
At the time Kennedy was facing an upsurge of anti-Catholic bigotry that threatened his candidacy. Houston was his response. And he answered the bigots by largely caving in, delivering strongly-worded assurances that his faith as a Catholic would have no influence on his performance as president. This was a huge step toward the privatization of religion—its exclusion from anything more than a ceremonial role in American public life.
Kennedy’s words in Houston helped him win in 1960, and the election of the first Catholic president was a historic event. But thanks in large part to what Kennedy said that day, we are still paying a high price in terms of muddled thinking and conflict regarding the relationship between religion and the presidency. As far as I can see—and leaving aside personal likes and dislikes—Barack Obama’s buttoned-down approach probably doesn’t hurt very much, but in the end the nation needs and deserves something better than that.