Should Preachers Like Mike Huckabee Run for Public Office?

A Unitarian minister says Americans have always been wary of electing 'reverend politicians,' and for good reason.

BY: Forrest Church


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By “pretensions to privilege,” Jefferson was alluding to the established churches' earlier religious sway in governmental affairs. Those days were now over. “Democratic principles,” as codified in the Constitution, encompassed full religious liberty, placing all citizens on an equal standing, regardless of faith. All citizens, Jefferson seems to be saying, are entitled to serve their country by standing for public office, but not, as Huckabee would have it, “to take this nation back for Christ.”


Two founders actually voted on the question of whether clergy should be permitted to serve as legislators. In the Virginia Constitution Convention of 1829, delegate James Monroe supported a motion that “no minister of the Gospel or Priest of any denomination… be eligible to either House of the General Assembly,” while James Madison voted “Nay.” The Ayes had it, 81 to 14, a vote expressive of the Southern attitude toward reverend politicians throughout much of the nineteenth century.


At one time or another, 13 states (all but one either in the South or a border state) have adopted clauses in their Constitutions prohibiting clergy from holding political office. Even in states where the clergy were free to stand for office, church leaders routinely looked askance at clerics who appeared too eager to entangle themselves in worldly concerns. In Illinois, the Rev. Peter Cartwright, the Methodist politico whom Abraham Lincoln defeated for Congress in 1844, simultaneously risked losing his standing in the Methodist Church. Neither Baptists nor Methodists approved their pastors profaning the clerical office by standing for any other than divine election.


Strictly speaking, Mike Huckabee would not be the first Christian clergyman to serve as president. James Garfield preached on occasion in his youth and was even ordained by the Disciples of Christ. Disciples granted ordinations quite casually, however, requiring no special theological training. Years later, Garfield's strict defense of church-state separation rendered moot any lingering question as to where his primary loyalties might lie.


Chief Justice Warren Berger was certainly correct when he ruled that state laws against ministers running for public office deny this group of citizens their full civil rights. On the other hand, is it really fair to expect a minister of the gospel to take an oath that may bind him to betray his fidelity to a higher law in order to fulfill his civic responsibilities?


Thomas Jefferson's standards remain the best benchmarks for voters to follow, when they consider the credentials of reverend politicians who present themselves to the voters. Have they “absorbed democratic principles?” And do they relinquish “all pretensions to privilege?”


In his address on “Faith in America,” Gov. Mitt Romney made it clear that he would answer, as president, not to his church but to the America people.  Huckabee, meanwhile,  invoking Jesus on the campaign trail, has said, “I can say that I have one client I have to please.”


We must ask ourselves whether a candidate who advertises himself as “a Christian leader” and declares himself answerable only to Christ has, in fact, “absorbed democratic principles” well enough to serve as president of all the people. To preserve the institutions bequeathed to us by our founders, we must be certain that our next president intends to swear on the Bible to uphold the Constitution, not swear on the Constitution to uphold the Bible. 

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