Jeffress on religious tests

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Obviously smarting from the slings and arrows of outraged pundits, Rev. Robert Jeffress took to WaPo’s op-ed page yesterday to defend himself. And his defense is worth a careful look, because rarely (I’m tempted to say never) has a leader of the religious right argued so directly and publicly that Americans should use religious identity as a basis for voting.

For starters, there can be no doubt that Jeffress really means it.

First, discussion of a candidate’s faith is permissible. Over the past several days, talk show hosts have lectured me about Article VI of the Constitution,
which prohibits religious tests for public office, as if considering a
candidate’s faith is somehow unconstitutional, un-American or even
illegal. How ludicrous. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to eliminate
through intimidation religion as a suitable criterion by which to choose
a candidate. The Constitution is referring to religious litmus tests
imposed by government, not by individuals.

Interestingly, John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and co-author of the Federalist Papers,
thought a candidate’s religious beliefs should be a primary
consideration in voting. Jay wrote, “It is the duty, as well as the
privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer
Christians for their rulers.” According to Jay, preferring a Christian
candidate is neither bigoted nor unconstitutional.

True enough, Article VI does no more than ban religious tests for office by the government–such as prohibiting Catholics from serving in the national legislature, as English law did at the time. The important question, however, has to do with why Jeffress thinks Christians should exercise a preferential option for Christians in the voting booth, even as he recognizes that just any Christian won’t do.

While I prefer a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian,
religion is not the only consideration in choosing a candidate. Frankly,
Christians have not always made good presidents. We must also consider
whether a candidate is competent to lead and govern according to
biblical principles.

Put another way, a competent non-Christian should be preferred to an incompetent Christian. But a competent Christian should be preferred to a competent non-Christian because he (or she) will “lead and govern according to biblical principles.”

These days, we tend to agree that there’s nothing wrong with politicians being motivated by their religious values; it’s become a cliche of American public life that one’s faith should not be left at home. But that’s a far cry from being expected to govern according to biblical principles (however understood). Elected officials in the United States swear to uphold the Constitution, not the Bible.

There’s been a lot of debate this season about Dominionism and the extent to which this multiform theology of biblical governance (most usefully sorted out by the AP’s Rachel Zoll) has penetrated the broad evangelical mainstream. I’d say that Jeffress’ public call to vote Christian is an indication that it has penetrated pretty far.

Update: William Saletan’s parsing of the Jeffress story on Slate makes much the same point. His emphasis is on the need to hold Perry’s feet to the fire.