Does your religious faith qualify – or disqualify – you from holding public office? Is what someone believes about god, afterlives, good and evil a key factor in whether you should vote for or against that person?
That question has arisen in the Garden Grove City Council election now underway. Clay Bock, who is seeking the District 3 seat on the council, has come under criticism for his association with the Church of Scientology. A former Scientologist denounced him at a city council meeting recently and the Tribune has received e-mail comments of a similar nature.
To be sure, Scientology is not what you’d call a mainstream faith. The tenets of the church are so … how shall we put this? … unconventional that I’d not be doing anyone justice by trying to describe them. But, frankly, the same can be said of some other belief systems, including die-hard fans of the Chicago Cubs.
The real issue is whether someone’s faith has much to do with their ability to discharge a public duty. The U.S. Constitution is a good place to start. It states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The Founding Fathers saw how sectarian disputes had led to many bloody wars in Europe, and were dedicated to separating church and state.
Back in the Nineties, three conservative candidates ran for the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education. Opponents argued that, since they were endorsed by a group that backed evangelical Christians in other races, these three were the kind of folks who would impose their own religious views on the school district.
Well, they won. But Terry Cantrell, Linda Reed and Bob Harden never did any such thing. They served – Reed and Harden are still serving – as school board members with the same priorities as their colleagues: improving classroom instruction, good relations with employees, improvement of test scores, etc. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s a correct theological position on whether algebra should be a required course or not. (It shouldn’t, but that’s another discussion).
Turning to the case of Mr. Bock and the city council election in Garden Grove, the situation seems similar. Are there any issues important to the Big Strawberry which touch on eternal things? Are there questions of faith regarding zoning, trash pickup, conditional use permits, employee benefits or curb heights?
If we start parsing someone’s personal beliefs for political purposes, there’s no end to the mischief it might lead to. In 1960, John Kennedy had to address the issue of his Catholicism. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was of concern to some. Going back further than that, Abraham Lincoln’s lack of affiliation to a church was something his opponents cited. Imagine the loss to the Republic if we had passed up Honest Abe because he didn’t sit in a pew every Sunday.
Now, I am not comparing Bock to Lincoln. But the principle remains. Good candidate or not, good public official or not, it’s the “good” that matters, not what church a person calls his or her spiritual home. There’s never a surplus of good government, regardless of faith.