Hats In The Ring: Early Questions For Presidential Contenders

Another column: another admission:  At least once a day, I look at “The Drudge Report.” One thing Drudge does is slavishly follow the ins and outs of the potential presidential campaigns of Republicans and Democrats. 

A lot is going on. As I write this, it looks like Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey are “in” for the Republicans, but U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) are “out.”

On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton now has former White House chief of staff John Podesta on board, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is exploring the race and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is still maintaining an “I’m out” stance – although it is reported that she is getting positive reviews in focus groups. 

I know – it’s only February of 2015. The election is still 22 months from now.

Still, I care about all this; the mainstream media does too.  It is my hope that you can at least get up a modest interest in it. I’d like all candidates in major and minor parties to let us know with both honesty and specificity what they think about the issues under that beloved rubric of separation of church and state.

This column is not designed to systematically explain where all these possible candidates stand, in no small measure because so many of them have rarely had to address separation issues, much less vote on them as elected officials.

If candidates aren’t asked the right questions, they will be unlikely to develop those correct responses once elected. It’s hard enough holding elected officials to the promises they made during campaigns.

So what do we know? Here’s just a sample of actual comments and votes:  On the Democratic side, both Warren and Sanders supported a bill to mute the effects of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling and the strange definition of religious liberty that decision created. 

In addition, on the day of the ruling, Clinton was interviewed and said, “I disagree with the reasoning as well as the conclusion. It’s the first time that our court has said that a closely held corporation has the rights of a person when it comes to religious freedom.” She said the ruling could mean companies “can impose their religious beliefs on their employees” and end up “denying women contraception as part of their health care plan.” (See, if I were doing that interview, I’d follow-up with, “Should courts decide the sincerity of beliefs or are you saying that if we reverse Hobby Lobby we won’t have to get into that?”)

On the Republican short list, Paul and Cruz are sitting senators and did not vote to even take up the bill that would have addressed the Hobby Lobby decision.

Santorum was the author of a failed amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act in 2000 that would have stated that it was the “sense of the Senate” that “where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy.…” 

When Paul was asked at a homeschool conference in a Kentucky church in 2010 how old the Earth is, he joked that he was only going to answer “easy” questions and that he “was going to have to pass on the age of the Earth.”

You may recall that during the 2012 Republican primary season, only Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman would cop to admitting belief in evolution.

The issue of whether government should subsidize churches and other religious institutions under “faith-based” initiatives is more complex. Some religious groups want tax support but still want to display religious icons and hire only people who will sign statements of faith.

When Clinton was running for Senate she stated her belief that, “There is no contradiction between support of faith-based programs and upholding our constitutional principles.” (Somebody should ask, “Would this mean that if you kept ‘faith-based offices’ in federal agencies, as existed at the time you were Secretary of State, that you would require that the best person be hired for any job in a federally funded program without regard to religious views?”)

We know that Bush was a huge fan of “faith-based” entities while leading Florida, even going so far as setting up a faith-based prison and establishing school voucher programs.  

On the other hand, Paul noted back in 2008 that he opposed President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative because, he said, “I think money sort of pollutes the mission of a purely Christian organization, or Muslim or whatever organization it is. And it obscures the church-state separation there really ought to be.”

Paul reiterated that conclusion at the same conference in which he passed on the age of the planet but with a much narrower critique: “The second that this church starts taking government money, they’re [the government] going to say you can’t say…things are sinful.”

Yes, it’s only February of 2015 – but it’s not too early to start asking questions of anyone who wants to be running the country come January 2017.


Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.