Is It Permissible To Question A Candidate About Her Religious Beliefs?

August 12, 2011

Some have criticized the reporter who asked Michele Bachmann during the GOP debate last night whether she would be “submissive” to her husband were she elected president. I think this criticism is unfounded. Given Bachmann’s own statements, this was a legitimate question.

There is a general sense that questions about a politician’s religious beliefs are inappropriate. To the extent this attitude derives from the social taboo against discussing religious beliefs, I take issue with it. Religious beliefs should be subject to examination and criticism the same as any other beliefs. No more, and no less.

On the other hand, it is correct that many of the religious beliefs a politician might hold are generally irrelevant to how that politician will carry out his or her duties if elected. Does Romney actually believe he needs to wear sacred underwear? Does Santorum actually believe the body of Jesus Christ can be found in the Eucharist wafer? Does Obama actually believe in the resurrection of the dead? Who cares? All these beliefs are unwarranted, if not outright ridiculous, but they are unlikely to affect how the candidate will act in office.

However, a candidate’s beliefs are relevant if there’s a reasonable basis for thinking that these beliefs will affect the candidate’s actions if elected. Obviously, there is such a reasonable basis when a candidate has herself asserted that these beliefs have influenced her important decisions in life.

While running for Congress back in 2006, Bachmann happily explained to a fundie Christian audience that her decision to study tax law was the result of urging from her husband. She had no inclination to study the subject herself, but she felt she had to because “the Lord says: Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands.”

Do I really think that were Bachmann elected president she would do whatever hubby instructed her to do? I doubt it. My guess is that Bachmann made the “submissive” statement to that particular audience because she knew it would be favorably received by them — perhaps assuring them that even though she was running for Congress, she recognized what her wifely duties were.

But it doesn’t really matter what her motivation was. She made the statement, and it is appropriate to ask her to explain its implications.

And she really offered no explanation. She danced away from the question by talking about what a wonderful marriage she has and how for her “submission” is just another way of saying ”respect” Oh, really? So if I ask someone to submit to my will, I am just asking for their respect?

Some candidates have worn their religion on their sleeves, and if they have chosen to emphasize the importance of particular religious beliefs, those beliefs are fair game.

And I certainly hope journalists will ask the questions that should be asked once Rick Perry enters the race.


#1 Ryan (Guest) on Friday August 12, 2011 at 12:19pm

Well said. There is such a double standard in this country. If she were wiccan then they would have had a grand old time asking her about her religion. Since she’s christian it’s offensive? It’s the same with Perry. Had he been promoting and attending an all day muslim prayer event it would have been an “outrage”. Suddenly EVERYONE would have been taking an interest in church/state seperation. Personally, I feel that this country can’t and won’t move forward until someone is in office that DOESN’T believe in talking snakes or living inside a whale. (But that’s a whole new rant.)

#2 Sware (Guest) on Friday August 12, 2011 at 12:37pm

If a candidate has used their religious beliefs openly as basis for why they support or oppose a given position on anything then it is 100% fair game.  As voters it is our duty to know more especially when fact based reasoning is not being applied.  Ask away everyone, PLEASE!  Bachman or anyone else should not be allowed to have it both ways, to parade their religion around when it will rally the base to vote for them but then to shy away & be “insulted” when asked perfectly legit questions pertaining to the matter.

#3 Mark (Guest) on Friday August 12, 2011 at 12:38pm

” I take issue with it. Religious beliefs should be subject to examination and criticism the same as any other beliefs. No more, and no less.”

Exactly. Why should religious beliefs be somehow above criticism? This nonsense has got to stop.

#4 gray1 on Friday August 12, 2011 at 5:48pm

This article gives a correct assessment as usual.  I suspect the days of “fair” or perhaps even civil questions to our candidates are gone.

#5 Mark (Guest) on Saturday August 13, 2011 at 7:05am

I would be more concerned about a candidate who avoids answering questions about religion or faith than one who answers incompletely. Of course, the two biggest fears people have with talking about faith issues is that: one, no amount of explanation sufficiently explains their faith; and two, many people have such a shallow faith they would rarely talk about it with anyone.

So regardless of religious choices, I will admire and likely attend to other statements more closely of a candidate who is straightforward and matter-of-fact about her faith, as Bachman was in these two instances, regardless of how exhaustive her answers could be.

So Ronald Lindsay almost makes a good point. Then he unwittingly provides the very discouragement that keeps many people from talking about faith and religion - by ridiculing her response (“dancing away”, scoffing at her connection between submission and respect…)

Ronald doesn’t get it; he may not WANT to get it. And that is the reason I applaud Bachman for being so straightforward, if so brief, about her beliefs.

#6 Ophelia Benson on Saturday August 13, 2011 at 9:03am

What a charming thought, that of having a woman president who says publicly that wives are to be submissive to their husbands. Honestly.

#7 Mark (Guest) on Saturday August 13, 2011 at 9:22am

I realize this is not journalism, but did it ever cross your mind to do a little theological research on the biblical meaning of submission, rather than rely on your own pride-based definitions or rush-to-judegment interpretations?  I can’t say I will ever vote for Michele Bachman, but this is an example of exactly how our political process has become so shallow.

#8 Josh Slocum (Guest) on Saturday August 13, 2011 at 10:00am

Oh my goodness, but you’re ridiculous, Mark. Yes, do let’s debate the fine semantics of “submission” with, well, whoever wishes to define it in some way that makes fundieism look less batshit. You’re a big part of the problem.

#9 Ewan Macdonald (Guest) on Saturday August 13, 2011 at 12:11pm

Very interesting point, Mark. What does the bible have to say about one’s husband urging one to study tax law?

#10 gray1 on Saturday August 13, 2011 at 6:23pm

Ewan,  “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” is all that comes to mind about tax law, that is if you don’t consider tithing a form of tax.  Not much studying to do there, simply “submit”. 

Note that the “wives to submit to husbands” occurs twice in the Bible, both times in books written by Paul who himself eschewed marriage.  Go figure.

#11 Kevin Voges (Guest) on Sunday August 14, 2011 at 2:01am

Surely the point is not what Ronald thinks “submission” means but what Bachmann thinks it means? From her quote above, do you really think that she’s into the theological subtleties that your comment implies?

#12 sailor1031 (Guest) on Sunday August 14, 2011 at 5:09am

To the extent that her/his religious beliefs demonstrate a candidate’s ignorance, stupidity, arrogance and downright gullibility they are very important.

#13 Don (Guest) on Sunday August 14, 2011 at 6:47am

At the beginning of his run for the White House, Jack Kennedy was compelled to profess that his religious faith would have no bearing on his attitude toward governing; that he would not be “taking orders from the Pope.”  For the most part, I think he did keep those two aspects of himself (his faith and his secular role as president) separate.  So did Bobby Kennedy.  So did Jimmy Carter.

When, however, any politician bases a significant governing decision or strategy or position expressly on his or her religious beliefs, when he himself refers to those beliefs before the public—as Bachmann and Perry and Huckabee and others do routinely, and as the reprehensible George Bush did while he was in office—it’s not only permissible but it’s necessary that the public and the media inquire assiduously into how those specific beliefs will influence the politician’s policies and decisions.  It seems to me, too, that when a politician’s influential attitudes (say, toward education policy) are based on abject falsehoods (like the lie that evolution is unproven), the public should at least try to go further, if possible, in disabusing the influential public figure of his delusions.

#14 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday August 14, 2011 at 8:18am

@ Don, Sware (and others). Good points. We don’t want to turn our elections into theological debates, but when a candidate, such as Bachmann, asserts that her religious beliefs influence her decisions, then it is appropriate, indeed, necessary, to inquire about the implications of those beliefs.

@Mark. I don’t believe I was being unfair to Bachmann either in saying she evaded the question or in interpreting “submission” as indicating a willingness to take direction from her husband. She is the one who claimed she studied tax law solely because her husband told her she should. Presumably she would have instead studied labor law, antitrust law or whatever (or perhaps not even have gone to law school) had she been told something different.For someone who wants to be our president, such an attitude is troubling, to say the least.

She actually could have given a more direct answer during the debate that also would have served her better. I don’t want to be Bachmann’s campaign advisor, but she could have said something such as, “I respect and follow my husband’s advice on personal family matters, but not on matters of public policy.” This would have answered the question, explained what she meant by her prior statements, and also allayed some concern that those who are voting for her are voting for her husband as co-president. (If she winds up saying something like this, can I bill her for my suggestion?)

As to what is the proper theological interpretation of “submission,” I’m confident if we asked 6 theologians, we’d get 7 different answers. For what it is worth, the relevant verses in Ephesians 5: 22-24 are: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.”

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