Should we expect that a secular leader will be more likely to promote a healthy pluralism than a candidate with explicit religious beliefs? In theory, both should be capable of understanding the concerns of diverse constituents and balancing them with the law and common good. But in at least one respect, a candidate of faith—supposing they are qualified to adequately lead our country—may have an advantage. They understand what it is like to be a member of a challenged group. This perspective grants insight into what is at stake in these debates, and may lead to a deeper commitment to resolutions.
The potential danger of a secular leader is that they see themselves not as a member of a community, but rather as an outside objective observer. Hecht articulates this misconception when she describes Sanders as “a leader with no ‘people’ but the people.” This myth of secular neutrality views religion as a filter we put over our true, natural eyes to shade the world. By removing the filter, we see reality as it “really” is, according to this myth. Yet this inevitably leads us to elevating yourself above religious people, and makes it harder to sympathize with their interests and concerns. If you think Christianity is a filter some people put on to distort their perception of the world, then it’s very difficult to see why Catholic concerns about being forced to pay for contraceptives should be taken seriously. In that way, having “a people” can give empathy and insight into the plights of other peoples in a way that denying all groups but the American people simply cannot.
The faith or lack of faith of the presidential candidates should be of great importance to us, but not just because we want to find one who believes like we do. We should be cautious about incentivizing contrived faith in politicians. But we also need to be aware that a candidate’s faith may in fact give him or her an advantage in advocating for the oppressed, the weak, and the discriminated against.
It will always be possible for whoever is elected president to use their authority to benefit their own people, but at least we can make sure they are equipped with the experience of belonging.
O. Alan Noble, Ph.D., is editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture and an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC. You may not follow him on Twitter.