Should political or judicial candidates be attacked for holding a particular faith? Should their religious beliefs be seen as problematic for the office they’re trying to win?
At first glance and without any context, the answer to that question should be a resounding “no.” Our nation was built in part upon the ideal of religious freedom, dating as far back to its founding and up to the modern era, where the “freedom of faith” is a globally recognized pillar of the Four Freedoms and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Rights. We haven’t always been perfect as a nation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to uphold the value that a person’s beliefs are theirs to choose.
Yet when it comes to holding political office, there are exceptions to the rule, especially if a person may use their faith to hurt others in their official capacity. If a person running for office holds religious beliefs that demand they sabotage and trample upon the livelihoods of entire groups of people, the overall populace should be opposed in their candidacy.
This may sound outlandish and rare, but it does happen. We don’t need to go back to the 1600s or even the middle of the 20th century to see examples of this — an example from just a few years back will help highlight how real the issue is.
Kim Davis, a former clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, refused to allow gay and lesbian couples to apply for marriage certificates in her jurisdiction in 2015, even after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling saying that marriage equality was now the rule of the land. Davis was held in contempt for her refusing to do so, and was subsequently lauded over by other conservative political candidates for office who came to Rowan County to proclaim her beliefs were under attack. Were they really, though?
Davis’s depiction of being forced to do something against her faith (and ordering her workers to do the same) can be countered with a narrative about her trying to oppress others from being able to live their lives under their own beliefs as well. Gay and lesbian couples, whether religious or not, are entitled to have their beliefs respected, too, and if the law of the land says that governments across the nation must respect their rights, that’s what we ought to see happen. The actions of others in government to restrict those rights, even if they’re doing so out of a purported religious belief, is unjust.
Davis was (and still is) free to express her religious beliefs, and even to refuse service to those she deems unworthy of marriage. But her choices have consequences, and it’s not an affront to her beliefs to enforce those consequences, which in turn ensure others are treated fairly under the law. It doesn’t mean she can’t be religious or adhere to her faith in a way she’d like to, but it could mean she and others ought to consider a different profession, one that is in the private rather than public sector.
Let’s consider extreme examples to drive the point home. Should a Christian police officer be “protected” from being fired if they refuse to help Muslim residents in danger? Should a religious firefighter keep their job if they only protect homes that put up manger scenes in front of their yards during Christmas time? We might laugh or say these examples are outlandish, but so, too, are the other infractions that religious individuals may seek to employ in their government work.
Davis lost her political position years later, and deservingly so. She refused to carry out the duties of her office based on her beliefs, which again can be seen as oppression of others.
Though Davis is now of her former role, there are others, whose beliefs are also circumspect or bigoted, that are presently running for office elsewhere in the country.
In Wisconsin, a contentious state Supreme Court election is set to commence in the first week in April. The two candidates, officially nonpartisan, are liberal-leaning Lisa Neubauer and conservative-leaning Brian Hagedorn.
Much of the attention in that race has focused on Hagedorn, and rightly so: former blog posts and other writings of his, in which the candidate suggests marriage equality would lead to bestiality and other social ills, have exposed his views from a decade ago, and deserve consideration of the electorate. Other evidence of his bigotry includes helping to found a private school that gave permission to administrators to expel LGBT students, or even remove students from the rolls who were straight but had LGBT parents or other family members in their households.
What has been Hagedorn’s response to these revelations? You can guess where this is going.
“Some of the arguments made against me are a blatant attempt not just against me but against people of faith more generally,” Hagedorn said earlier this month in response to his former writings. He added, “What we have really are people who want me to sign onto their own creed and their own religious beliefs.”
That is a gross misrepresentation of what Hagedorn is going through. Yes, some have been very critical of his views, which seem to have derived from his religious views, but that’s their right to do so. His vetting should include his points-of-view on myriad subjects, including whether his personal beliefs will interfere with the stances he’ll take if he wins the election and joins the highest-ranking judicial body in the state of Wisconsin.
No one is saying that Hagedorn can’t hold those viewpoints, but again, a large number of the electorate, much like with what happened to Kim Davis, want him to be held accountable for what he’s said in the past. And if what he’s said in the past troubles voters, and he cannot reconcile his present views as being non-bigoted, then that’s going to be an issue for him to have to deal with — one that does look at his past and present religious beliefs, but doesn’t necessarily oppress Hagedorn from holding them.
There’s more at issue with the candidate’s past writings, beyond his beliefs about the LGBT community. Hagedorn wants voters to ignore his past statements, which are decidedly bigoted, biased, and angry toward certain segments of society, but which also go against key decisions of some very important federal Supreme Court rulings of the past century.
Hagedorn has suggested, for example, that the Constitution allows for states to decide whether public school administrators can lead religious prayers or not. That runs counter to a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that said otherwise, that officials couldn’t lead prayers in the hallways or classrooms of public schools.
Hagedorn also said in the past that Christians are “better” than non-Christians, and he’s made flagrant attacks against Planned Parenthood, an organization that frequently finds itself in front of the state’s highest court.
Can we trust Hagedorn, based on these statements and others, to be an impartial arbiter of justice on that court’s bench? Some may be able to look past these facts from his past, while others may actually embrace them. However, I (and many others) view them as clearly disqualifying.
That is not an attack on Hagedorn’s faith, but rather a view that considers some of the more extreme statements he has made, and questions whether we can entrust him with the responsibility to administer justice fairly. The distinction is an important one to make — Hagedorn’s rights are not being impeded by people questioning how influential his beliefs are in helping him shape his opinions on the law, especially if those beliefs are bigoted in nature against classes or groups of people.
Candidates should not be able to use their “freedom of faith” as a tool to avoid answering questions about how they might serve if elected. Hagedorn and others have made bigoted statements in the past; whether based out of their religion or some other aspects of their life, they must be held to account for them.
Featured image credit: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr