- - Monday, February 8, 2016

The worst liability for a U.S. presidential candidate is atheism.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that fully half of Americans say they would be less likely to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who does not believe in God. They are more likely to vote for an adulterer, a pot-smoker and a candidate with a long list of other negative behaviors than to vote for a non-believer.

In surveys year after year, Americans consistently say that it is very important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. What do they mean by that? They don’t seem to care about the usual measures of personal piety – such as knowledge of scripture, church attendance, prayer and family life. After all, we just saw Donald Trump embraced by evangelicals, including Jerry Falwell Jr., despite demonstrating less piety in his personal life than even the popular Ronald Reagan. So what does it mean – why do we consistently affirm our preference for a president with strong religious beliefs?

Clearly conventional religiosity does not necessarily mean good leadership. The case of Jimmy Carter is particularly instructive on this point. He was our most ostentatiously religious president, and his presidency was one of the worst; a dismal failure. The great president, Thomas Jefferson, was at the other extreme. His was a decidedly unconventional, even idiosyncratic, spiritual life.

If church membership, tithing and other common indicators of religiosity are not the important issues, what then are American voters really looking for in the “strong religious beliefs” of their candidates?

I believe they are looking for a few bedrock characteristics.

First, and perhaps most important, they want humility. It takes a big ego to proclaim oneself the best of 330 million people to assume the daunting responsibilities of running the U.S.A. Voters would like to see a candidate’s super self-confidence balanced by the humility that comes from a genuine belief in God. As one wag put it, “Know that I’m God and you’re not!” It is a truth a president needs as ballast against the risk of hubris.

Strong religious beliefs imply a deep moral compass. Voters know that the country is lost without a moral compass. A president’s moral compass needs to be deep enough not to become confused by passing winds, and sure enough to allow consideration of many opinions and possible consequences of actions. Religious grounding is usually where moral considerations get their start.

As defender of the nation’s liberty and protector of its well-being, voters want their president to be a large-souled individual with strong religious beliefs that encompass both.

Despite the growth of a minority of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”), the new Pew study shows that most Americans continue to view organized religion as a force for good in American society. Nearly nine-in-ten adults say churches and other religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds and that they play an important role in helping the poor and needy. And three-quarters say churches and other religious institutions help protect and strengthen morality in society. The unaffiliated agree, although they also point out that religious institutions are often too concerned with money, power, politics and rules.

I believe Americans want their president to have the religious sensibility of the first president, George Washington. He wrote about the value of righteousness, of seeing and offering thanks for the “blessings of heaven.” When he wrote to young people, particularly to his children, Washington stressed the values of truth, character and honesty, but said little about specific items of religious faith and practice.

Washington was an early supporter of religious tolerance. When he hired workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, “If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.” Washington’s letter to a synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790 resonated with his religious outlook. It concluded with this quote from the book of Micah: “… everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

That’s what we mean by a president with strong religious beliefs.

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