Religious litmus tests

“[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” – Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution.

This constitutional restriction isn’t about voting, of course – instead, it’s about who is qualified for office in the first place. Presumably the framers realized that Baptists might refuse to vote for Methodists and vice versa, and that there was not a lot to be done about that, really.

Still, as a voter in a pluralistic society, I would like to feel that I’m modeling the underlying intent of Article 6. I would like to live in a country where anyone could have a shot at the highest office: Baptists, Methodists, fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslim and (least likely of all, if you believe some recent polls) atheists like me. It is interesting for me to realize that I cannot entirely sign up for that.

I am an atheist with a worldview much like the famously pugnacious ones: Dawkins, Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. I’m ambivalent, though, about their evangelistic approach, mainly because I think that religiously pluralistic societies work just a bit more smoothly if folks don’t go around picking fights about religion. Of course I feel that these guys should be able to write whatever they want, and that a religiously pluralistic society (or world) will inevitably have a lot of conversation that some fraction of people find to be blasphemous in the extreme – including, say, Danish cartoons mocking well-known prophets. So there will be arguments, and jokes, and eff you if you can’t take a joke, and no, others’ blasphemous jokes don’t justify your violence. Other things equal, though, I’d rather not even go there, most of the time.

Except … in the end, you can’t keep religious beliefs entirely separate from everything else, no matter how much you try.  So, although I don’t want to impose my own litmus test, here are two questions that I was hoping that someone would ask in the 2012 GOP presidential debates, back when the field included Bachmann, Perry, and Huntsman:

Question 1: “Candidates – do you believe that the following is literally true?  A few thousand years ago, a guy built a boat, and put breeding pairs of land animals on that boat. All land animals in the world today are descendants of the animals that were on that boat.”

Question 2:  “Really?”

If this question amounts to picking a fight, then I think it is a necessary fight in choosing a possible President. Because if you take a “Yes” answer *seriously*, then it has all sorts of implications, some obvious, some seemingly trivial.  Here are a couple of them:

  • Sea levels have risen before, and everything worked out that time.
  • The only life forms that matter are the big ones that we can easily see
  • Species extinction doesn’t matter as long as you have a single breeding pair.

This stuff actually matters: when a president makes certain decisions, he/she will have to either have reasonable beliefs about population biology (and climate change, and fossil fuels (note the “fossil”)) or will have to trust someone who does.  (And yes, I’ve switched now to using the word “reasonable belief” to refer to things I believe.  I think that this is the crucial point at which you can see my religious tolerance dissolving and I am revealed as a litmus-tester.  Unfortunately, I don’t see any way around it.)

If we’d been able to ask that question of the GOP presidential field in 2012, I think that the answerers would have divided into four camps (with the last three being hard to tell apart from the outside):

  1. No. (I.E. no I don’t believe in the literal truth of the Noah’s Ark story.)  As far as I know, only Huntsman would have answered this way.
  2. Yes (literally). This candidate simply believes the story, and would also believe direct implications of the story.
  3. Yes (cynically).  This candidate doesn’t believe in Noah’s Ark one bit, but wants to carry the state of Kansas.
  4. Yes (in a compartmentalized way).

The last of these is the most complicated and interesting. People are really good at believing seemingly inconsistent things, with different parts of their mind, or in different contexts and social settings. So maybe in the context of a Sunday morning sermon, our candidate believes in Noah’s Ark 100%; in the context of talking to his Science Advisor about the environmental impacts of an oil spill, he has shifted gears and Noah’s Ark isn’t as much on his mind. I am sympathetic to this kind of compartmentalization – I know that I do it a lot, and I know also that I probably do it a lot more than I think I do.

All of this leaves a quandary for atheistic voters like me, however. Imagine that we submit to the inevitability of a failure of our own litmus test, and we conclude that the next President of the United States will be someone who says “Yes” to the question “Do you believe in the literal truth of the Noah’s Ark story”?

The question then is:  which kind of “Yes” man do you want in office?  A true-believer, a cynic, or a compartmentalizer?  I am not sure which I would choose first, but I think the true believer would be the worst of the three.

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