Some persons believe that religious affiliations indicate whether political candidates will act ethically if elected to office. They give great weight to the candidates’ religions in deciding whether to vote for them.
Voters would be wise, however, to evaluate candidates based on their acts instead of what they say about religion. When it comes to religion, experience shows that the saying “talk is cheap” is particularly accurate.
In his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck claims that one of the most likely places to find evil people is in the churches. He explains that such persons usually attempt to disguise their wickedness from others.
As Peck points out, a highly effective method of hiding an evil nature is to pretend to be a supporter of a religious organization. This is because many people have been indoctrinated to associate religion with goodness.
Peck is a Christian and knows that the vast majority of religious people are not evil. He also believes that most of his religious brethren are sincere and do not join religious groups for nefarious purposes.
But in order to thwart those politicians and others whose religiosity is a camouflage for corruption, it is important to realize that some bad persons gravitate toward churches for the concealment that religious affiliation can provide.
And as the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne observed in the sixteenth century: “Piety is the easiest of all virtues to fake.”
Because evil people sometimes claim to be pious, the professed religious beliefs of government officials or anyone else are virtually useless for judging character. No wonder Thomas Jefferson said that “it is in our lives, and not our words that our religion must be read.”
A similar view was held by many of the other Founding Fathers. Oliver Ellsworth, who served on the five-man committee that drafted the Constitution in 1787, exemplified their position.
Ellsworth, who went on to become a U.S. senator and the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, argued against religious tests for public office. He said the tests “are utterly ineffectual; they are no security at all, because men of loose principles will, by an external compliance, evade them. If they exclude any persons, it will be honest men, men of principle who will rather suffer an injury than act contrary to the dictates of their consciences.”
The Founders therefore provided in Article Vl, Clause 3 of the Constitution that there shall be no religious test for any public office. In the same Clause, they permitted public officials to declare allegiance to the Constitution by either a secular affirmation or a religious oath.
During debates over ratification of the Constitution, some people criticized the document for not having a religious requirement for officeholders. The Unitarian pastor William Bentley opposed them by saying: “Sir, the only evidence we can have of the sincerity and excellency of a man’s religion, is a good life. . . . That man who acts an honest part toward his neighbour, will most probably conduct honorably toward the public.” His position carried the day.
The experience of modern political reporters causes them to adopt a similar criterion in judging politicians. The statements of politicians are taken with more than a grain of salt by good reporters.
As columnist Molly Ivins explains, young political reporters “are always told there are three ways to judge a politician. The first is to look at the record. The second is to look at the record. And the third, look at the record.”
When government leaders and others are judged on the record of their lives, history shows that many nonbelievers have been much more ethical and caring than some persons who claimed to be religious. In fact, many of history’s worst tyrants professed to be religious, while some of humanity’s greatest benefactors were nonreligious.
Voters should keep this in mind and evaluate political candidates accordingly. Otherwise, they might reject a Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln – both of whom were assailed for their unorthodox religious views. And they might elect an Adolf Hitler, who gladly wore the mantle of orthodox religion.
Martin Luther King Jr. set a commendable example on this subject. He said: “I would be the last to condemn the thousands of sincere and dedicated people outside the churches who have labored unselfishly through various humanitarian movements to cure the world of social evils, for I would rather a man be a committed humanist than an uncommitted Christian.”
Anyone can talk a good game, but commitment and sincerity are shown by acts and not words.