‘A faith is not just a gaggle of individual beliefs. It is a lens through which we view reality,” Stephen Mansfield writes in his new book Ask the Question: Why We Must Demand Religious Clarity from Our Presidential Candidates. The book addresses “presidential campaigns . . . filled with pious mush, airy declarations of faith, and broad-brush assurances of devotion that go largely unscrutinized.”
Mansfield argues that we cannot afford to leave unexamined the faith of those aspiring to the highest office in our land. The influence of religion on presidents’ agendas and its role in modern crises are too great to be ignored. He talks more about it in an interview. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How is it “un-American” for Americans to be “so unwilling to demand religious clarity from their presidential candidates”?
Stephen Mansfield: The entire American system of government is based upon the idea that the people vote for those who will represent them in government. In order to cast an informed vote, the people must know the factors that will determine their representatives’ conduct in office. Philosophy, experience, alliances, competence, and character are part of this, of course, but so is religion. If a man’s faith is sincere, it is the most important thing about him. It is impossible to understand who he is and how he will lead without first understanding the religious vision that informs his life.
Lopez: You describe our time as a religious one, not a secular one. And yet, there seems to be hostility toward, fear of, and distance from robust faith in the public square. How do you explain this?
Mansfield: There are two things happening at once in our time. While religion is increasing in influence worldwide, much of the West is in reaction to it. It is reacting to the scandals in religious institutions, the taunts of the New Atheists, the tension between traditional faith and our neo-pagan culture, and the often bombastic nature of religiously infused politics.
We should also be honest about the fact that it is traditional religion with its traditional moral boundaries that is now deemed an offense in the public square. The faith-based politics of the religious Left — exemplified by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among many others — does not seem to rankle fashionable sensibilities as much.
Lopez: You write: “What will be neither forgivable nor understandable is if our generation of Americans, with all the evidence amassed before us, continues to allow religion in American politics to be the sentimental, barely comprehensible, shadowy thing it has been.” You then mention Hitler. How is that not alarmist?
Mansfield: I agree the reference is alarming, but not alarmist. The fact is that Adolf Hitler wrapped himself in religious garb as he spoke to the German people. This gave him influence he would not have otherwise acquired. He famously said, “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.” He also wrote, “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” Granted, his example is at the extreme edge of what might happen if religion goes unexamined in our politics, but it is an example, nonetheless, and so deserves attention.
Lopez: What are some of the most important faith-based decisions presidents have made?
Mansfield: President Obama reversed himself on same-sex marriage and said he did so on the basis of religion — more specifically, his understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law citing the Bible as his primary reason. Mrs. Clinton was known for quoting Biblical chapter and verse in defense of DOMA. Later, both Clintons reversed themselves, citing the same Bible they had once used to argue for DOMA. George W. Bush’s entire presidency was based on his belief that, as he told Reverend James Robison before he ran for office, “God wants me to run for president. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen, and, at that time, my country is going to need me. I know it won’t be easy, on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.”
The full list of faith-based presidential decisions would be lengthy. Religion inspired Franklin Roosevelt to fight the devastations of the Great Depression, Theodore Roosevelt to create national parks, Herbert Hoover to reform prisons, Harry Truman to recognize the state of Israel, and Ronald Reagan to act on a variety of matters, the destruction of Communism chief among them. Certainly, no serious-minded historian would doubt that Lincoln fought a war and freed slaves, guided by what he believed to be the will of God. These examples are barely a beginning.
Lopez: You say, “We need to know more than we have been allowed to know before of how Hillary Clinton, and every person who leads us, is shaped by their religion.” So what are the unasked and unanswered questions you would ask?
Mansfield: “Mrs. Clinton, you have said that you reversed yourself on DOMA and arrived at your current view of same-sex marriage based on your religious faith. Please explain how your faith dictated this change.”
“You have also said that a woman chooses to get an abortion, in part, on the basis of her faith. Please clarify.”
“Your faith seems to set no discernable boundaries in your thinking about abortion, Planned Parenthood, or the legacy of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Is this true?”
“You have rebuked Republicans on the Senate floor for dealing with immigration apart from the ethics of Jesus. Can you draw a line between tenets of your faith and your immigration policy?”
“Finally, Ma’am, please define what a ‘social-gospel Methodist’ is. Thank you, Madam Secretary. I’ll have a number of follow-up questions.”
Lopez: There’s obviously been some cynicism about Donald Trump’s faith. What do you make of that? What should reporters be asking him to get to what he believes?
Mansfield: I can’t judge Trump’s inner connection to God, but it is obvious that he is a light churchgoer at best. He saw the need for Evangelicals’ support and began trying to speak their language. He was clumsy in this and often ill-informed. His attempt to prove faith by displaying a Bible his mother gave him — “with my address in it” — was his lowest point.
If he is a Christian who intends to govern according to God’s will, as he claims, then it is appropriate for voters to ask him for specifics. Was there a turning point, a salvation experience, or a season of repentance that led to change? What are the direct connections between Christian teaching and his positions on policy issues? Where were these connections not long ago when he was in favor of abortion — including partial-birth abortion — same-sex marriage, and Hillary Clinton for president, all of which he says his faith leads him to oppose now?
Lopez: How have we seen President Obama’s faith in action in his almost eight years in office? What has been its impact on history and religious liberty?
Mansfield: Mr. Obama has been very open about his faith and the faith basis of his politics, both in his two bestselling autobiographies and in his speeches. He has also attributed some of his most important decisions in office to the influence of his religion. His reversal of opinion on same-sex marriage is an example.
I believe his faith-based approach to politics will shape American public life for years to come in three vital ways. First, he has been a most articulate spokesman for the religious Left and so leaves that movement strong and ready to lastingly influence our public affairs. Second, he has ensured that any future president will not only have to explain the faith basis of his or her politics but will have to be articulate in doing so. In other words, he raised the bar, heightened expectations. Third, he has declared the end of a Christian consensus in America. It is a gauntlet thrown down for those who disagree with him and a call to action for those who don’t.
Lopez: Justice Scalia spoke pretty clearly about faith and its impact on his public life. Was he something of a model in that way?
Mansfield: Without question. When leading figures are outspoken and articulate about religion in public affairs, it provides both a model and an invitation to others. It says, “Intelligent, ennobling discussion of faith is both possible and necessary in our world. Come do likewise.”
Lopez: You write: “The meaning of a person’s faith is usually an extension of how he or she interprets the foundational text of that faith. This may mean, as our postmodern and perhaps post-Christian culture progresses, that we will be required one day to ask how a presidential candidate interprets the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita — perhaps even the Satanic Bible of Anton LaVey.” The Satanic Bible? Do you really see that coming?
Mansfield: I think it is possible that one day a Satanist might run for some state office but, no, I don’t think it’s likely a Satanist could be a serious candidate for any national office. My reference to Satanism in the book is simply to stir thinking: Satanism is a religion. It’s gaining strength — witness the satanic temple newly opened in Detroit to national attention. It is a religion with a text. Prepare to understand it as you strive to understand all other religions playing a role in American society.
Lopez: So are there standard questions you’d ask every presidential candidate that would bring to the surface what we voters ought to know about their faith?
Mansfield: I use an approach I call “Draw a Line.” It goes like this: “Ma’am, you have said you are faith-based in your politics and that this is particularly true of your view of immigration. Would you please draw a line between your view of immigration and any scripture, any principle of your theology, or any tenet of your religion that has shaped your thinking on this issue?”
Obviously, if the candidate is of a non-Christian or non-Jewish faith, the wording of the question varies, but only slightly. The goal is the same. I want the candidate to draw a meaningful line between his faith and his policies. I find this framing of the question has the best chance of preventing pious mush and producing a fairly “linear,” relevant answer.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com).