I have to confess I missed most of the debate between Kaine and Pence last night. I had in part a legitimate excuse, because it was a Tuesday night and my wife and I had a rehearsal to attend about 40 minutes’ drive from home. However, on the way back, she tuned in NPR to listen. Only a few seconds was enough to exasperate me, because Kaine, Pence, and the moderator were all talking at once. For me, especially due to severe hearing loss, this is an extremely frustrating experience. But even for fully hearing people I am sure it is unpleasant at the very least, and almost certainly confusing.
When we got home, the debate was still on, and I tried to watch if for a bit. The tendency to talk simultaneously was still there, the interruptions by one candidate or the other making it impossible for either one to get his entire argument across. And then, Pence was particularly annoying with his tendency to run on, overextending any reasonable time limit. Still, I hung in there until the moderator asked them to tell how their faith influenced them. This was the limit. I went upstairs to prepare for bed.
My wife reported back that Kaine had won the debate, largely because Pence could offer no real defense to Kaine’s questions about his tacit support for some of Donald Trump’s more egregious statements. I was glad to hear that of course – nobody should vote for Trump. But I was not sorry to bail out on the religious discussion.
To my mind asking a candidate about his faith in such a setting ignores a fundamental fact about our government: it is secular. The Founding Fathers knew the history of Europe only too well: the centuries of warfare between Protestants and Catholics being foremost in their minds. They reasoned that the problem stemmed from the attempt to force one religion or the other on one whole country or province, with government endorsing one religion or the other. So the Founding Fathers laid down the law in the Constitution that no religious test should be applied to anyone seeking office. This implied, surely, that also in private life no person should be persecuted by the government for his beliefs.
Of course, in reality there has been religious discrimination in this country. Jews, Muslims, and Catholics have in the past been effectively barred from public office. But over time the Constitution, and the general moral progress of our culture, have granted, gradually, full religious liberty as far as public office is concerned. Prejudice by some believers against other religions persists privately, but it is to be hoped that ultimately this will subside.
Under this understanding of the Constitution, the attempt by some to impose their religious views on others should be condemned. So, if for example you have religious grounds for opposing capital punishment, you have every right to use any argument to try to outlaw it, but you do not have the right to prevent legal executions or impose unilateral sanctions on those who carry them out. Similarly, if you are opposed to abortion on religious grounds, you have every right to offer any argument to persuade people not to have them, or to try to regulate them, but you do not have the right to block access to clinics or to shoot doctors who work there.
This is not the place I choose to argue about the substance of either of those two issues, which I know came up in the debate. But the general perspective, that religion should not be a test of political eligibility and that the law holds sway over personal religious opinion, seems to me the only one consistent with our Constitution.