In a Live chat on Facebook, BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler and Education Director Charles Watson Jr. discussed the unique religious freedom issues that can arise when a minister is running for public office.
While candidates should always expect past comments to be scrutinized by their opponents, they stressed, religious expressions such as sermons should not be politicized. This risks going against the Article VI clause of the United States Constitution, which explicitly guarantees that there are no religious criteria for occupying a position.
Specifically, the BJC conversation focused on recent attack ads targeting Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is a Baptist minister and a candidate for the US Senate in Georgia. The ads draw on his sermons in a way that challenges both his patriotism and, remarkably, his Christian faith.
Word & Wayby Brian Kaylor reports on conversation and provides this useful summary of a point that I have found particularly important: Sermons are not like other speeches.
Tyler, who noted that she had worked on political campaigns before coming to BJC, agreed that while candidates expect naysayers to look at past comments, treating sermons in this way seems more problematic. Noting that Christians believe the Holy Spirit inspires a pastor when he preaches, she said that “there is something different about giving a sermon than giving a speech.” And she believes that religious understanding “must be respected.”
“When you think of sermons in particular, it’s different to me than a speech you might give to a one-off audience or an article you wrote,” she explained. “The whole idea of being a pastor of a church is, you know, that you’re called to that position. So for a long time you develop a relationship with the people of the church. You’re leading the church in a certain spiritual direction. And so, to take even a sermon – let alone a line of a sermon – from that larger relationship in the context of a pastor and his church, it can be very misleading. “
“And not thinking about that context, I think, can take us in a direction that really threatens religious freedom,” she added, “and even threatens this concept of religious testing. This concept of somehow imposing a religious test on public office, of saying that a religious opinion that you hold would somehow disqualify you for public office – like some people have said that in regards to Reverend Warnock and his ability to be from the United States. Senator. “
Kaylor also reported on their key discussion of the racial background surrounding the situation:
“We have an African American Baptist pastor in Atlanta, Georgia at Ebenezer Baptist Church. And you take extracts of sermons from this no one to use against him politically. I think that part of them exceeds the limit of their behavior and that the dog is whistling behind ”, [Watson] noted. “This is the deepest problem.”
“The attacks that are now taking place against Dr. Warnock over his religious statements are part of the same attacks that have been directed against Martin Luther King, Jr. We say the same words. We call someone radical, call someone a communist, call someone anti-American. Today, 60 years after Dr. King’s death, it’s hard to find anyone who will speak badly of Dr. King, Jr., ”Watson said.
“And I just want us to learn from our past,” he added.
Just as Supreme Court Justice Amy Comey Barrett’s religious views are irrelevant to her ability to sit on the court (as Tyler pointed out in this article for Good Faith Media), Warnock’s religious views – and certainly his sermons – make him no more and no less qualified for public office. Whether during a judicial confirmation hearing or during a campaign for an elective mandate, opponents must respect this essential line drawn by the Constitution.
As Tyler added in a follow-up Tweeter: “No religious test means no religious test. Period.”
Watch the whole conversation on the BJC Facebook page.
At the end, they announced that the 2021 Religious Freedom Scholarship Competition is asking college and senior students to write on this topic. Visit BJConline.org/contest for details.