Running for Public Office: The Separation of Church and State
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
(THEDAVINCI - CHARLOTTESVILLE) - Separation of church and state is a concept which dates back to the origin of the United States. It was established in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights by stating that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” (“Bill Of Rights (1791) - Bill Of Rights Institute”). This amendment has been readily interpreted throughout the history of the United States, resulting in multitudes of court cases discussing its limits. In many ways, the United States government has taken steps to ensure that church and state remain separated. However, the system for doing so is not without flaw. These flaws cause important questions and concerns to arise, such as the relationship between government officials and their religion. Allowing religious leaders to hold public office does not go against the introductory clause of the Constitution.
Before 1880, thirteen states’ constitutions contained provisions which prohibited religious leaders from holding public office. States justified this exclusionary rule by claiming that clergy should devote themselves solely to the service of God rather than diverting their attention to matters of public policy. In the case McDaniel v. Paty (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting clergy members from serving was a violation of the First Amendment. By restricting which citizens are permitted to run for public office, the government enforces limitations on the voices of the people. While religion should remain separate from state affairs, banning religious leaders from running for office would infringe on the people’s First Amendment rights. The ruling in McDaniel v. Paty played an important role in determining the boundaries of the First Amendment and the ways in which the United States chooses to enforce the separation of church and state.
Religious leaders who hold public office have a moral responsibility to acknowledge the positions of religious and political power they hold and must take calculated steps to ensure that they do not abuse their power in any form. A measure a religious leader could potentially take is temporarily stepping down from their religious role while holding public office. By stepping down from their role as a religious leader, the candidate can recognize their influence over those in their religious organization and can take steps towards separating their religious affairs from public policy. This measure is also beneficial because it gives politicians the space to acknowledge the ban on political campaign activity by churches and charities. This law, which was passed in 1954, declares that a church and charitable organization is one "which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office,” (“Charities, Churches And Politics | Internal Revenue Service”). Having religious leaders step down during the time that they hold public office is a preventative measure that the United States government could take to enforce this law. By separating themselves from leadership roles in their religious organization, public office holders can ensure that their organization is not engaging in a public campaign.
Religious leaders are not only leaders in their place of worship, they also often have a great influence on the people in their communities. As leaders of their communities, many members of the clergy have been working on pressing issues, even before running for office. Georgia Senator Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock said in a debate that, “Running for the United States Senate … gives me an opportunity to work on the issues I’ve been working on for years,”(Warnock, 00:05:00-15). Permitting religious leaders to run for public office would allow them to represent their communities’ needs and concerns. These leaders also encourage their communities to participate in local politics and elections. Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is a clear example of this. His 2020 campaign, Every Voice Every Vote, aimed to increase civic engagement within his community. He refers to his devotion to Judaism as his motivation to begin this campaign, saying that, “My Judaism calls me to engage across lines of difference and ensure that access to voting is a reality for all, so that every voice is heard and every vote is counted,” (Graves-Fitzsimmons, and Siddiqi). This dedication to civic engagement, backed by prior religious leadership experience in his community, shows Rabbi Pesner’s commitment to upholding the Constitution and its principles.
Religious leaders should have the right to run for public office. According to the Supreme Court case McDaniel v. Paty, it is unconstitutional to prohibit members of the clergy from running for public office. This, however, does not mean that measures should not be taken to protect the introductory clause of the United States Constitution, which states that there must be a separation of church and state. Religious leaders must acknowledge the power that they hold and take steps, such as stepping away from their religious roles, to ensure the separation of their religion from public policy. We as a nation must continue to question the boundaries of our Constitution, to both uphold and better understand our values as a democracy.