Presidential Candidates and Religious Tests

by Dan Quinn

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said this past weekend that he would oppose the election of a Muslim as American president because Islam (he believes) is in conflict with the the Constitution. But today we read that while Carson has a personal religious test for candidates seeking the presidency, he failed a similar religious test earlier this year.

Talking Points Memo reports that a Texas pastor was among critics who earlier this year strongly protested an invitation for Carson to speak at a Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference. Their concerns? They thought Carson’s personal religious beliefs are theologically suspect.

In particular, critics complained that Carson’s membership in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was a problem. Bart Barber, a Southern Baptist pastor in Farmersville just northwest of Dallas, was one of the critics. Here’s part of what he wrote in a blog post last spring:

“Southern Baptists have classified Seventh-Day Adventists not as a church but as a sect. We have stopped short of anathematizing them, but we have identified aspects of their beliefs that are sub-Christian and harmful.”

Following those kinds of complaints, Carson was essentially disinvited from speaking at the event.

This isn’t the first time a Republican’s religious beliefs got him in trouble with religious-righters who make up the base of the GOP. You might recall that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism caused heartburn among conservative evangelical Christians during the Republican presidential nomination contest in 2012. Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, for example, characterized Mormonism as a non-Christian cult (although he held his nose and supported Romney in the general election campaign against President Obama). In his March blog post, Barber also calls Mormonism a cult.

We won’t get into the theological differences between Southern Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists (or Mormons). We also won’t criticize people of faith who want only members of their own religious denomination to serve as speakers at their religious events. That’s their right.

We’ll simply point out the wisdom of our nation’s founders in insisting that the Constitution prevent government from favoring or disfavoring religion or any particular religious faith. While voters may base their balloting decisions on any reasons they choose, government is rightly bound by the constitutional principles of separation of church and state and no religious tests for public office. We should all be thankful for that, regardless of our religious beliefs.