Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test as a qualification for any public office in the United States. This was a topic of interest just before the presidential election in 2012. And why? Because Republican candidate Mitt Romney was an active leader in the Mormon Church, and to millions of conservative Christians, Mormonism was not part of the Evangelical movement in America. They applied their own informal religious test to Romney’s religion. It did not measure up. On election day, millions of them stayed home. Romney lost.
I, for one at that time, anticipating this result, suggested that conservative Christian voters apply a different test for the office of president and ask about the candidates’ moral standards, using the Ten Commandments. Of course, there is no moral perfection this side of heaven, but most Americans would agree that Mitt Romney met this standard well. It appears that this suggestion fell on deaf ears, or was trumped by a religious test, since millions of conservative Christians did not vote in 2012.
What about these two tests and the current presidential election?
It’s clear that both candidates have volunteered their own personal religious test for office, a practice not required nor forbidden by the Constitution. Hillary Clinton has made much of her activism in the Methodist faith while young, claiming that it still guides her decisions. Donald Trump has emphasized his Presbyterian roots, especially while speaking to Evangelicals. On the surface, each has applied the religious test for office to themselves. Members of those denominations, however, may expect the candidates to meet membership requirements. Methodists and Presbyterians probably expect their members to contribute, attend meetings, and live moral lives governed by the Ten Commandments.
Turning to the question of morality, we ask: What would happen in the current presidential election if thoughtful people, Christians and others, applied a moral test to the candidates? What would be the result if the Ten Commandments—which condemn, among other things, cursing and swearing, adultery, lying, stealing, and greed—were applied to Clinton and Trump?
A candid evaluation of their words and behavior suggests that these candidates have been for a long time, and continue to be, unapologetic violators of the broader spirit of the Ten Commandments in general and have made the violation of several of them in particular into imaginative art forms. That is to say, they can spin the truth beyond recognition. Since failure to tell the truth—lying—is a leading moral failure of these candidates, let’s look into its meaning. Synonyms of it include deception, deceitfulness, and falsification, among others. The core meaning of lying is “a knowing and intentional stating, or claiming, that something is true when, it is, in fact, not true.” The reverse is also lying. Students of lying discuss several varieties of it. Among them are compulsive lying, serial lying, pathological lying, and white lies.
The public has been treated to an endless parade of these deceptions by both candidates for more than a year. For example, everyone knows that Hillary Clinton lied about her use of a private email server to store secret government documents. The FBI’s examination of it revealed that, in fact, government secrets were on it. When caught in her lies about the server, she said it was a “mistake” and that she was sorry. Perhaps she was sorry she got caught. Is this an example of compulsive lying (lying as a matter of habit)? Or, something more—a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth?
As for Donald Trump, everyone knows that he tells his audiences that his net worth is at least $10 billion. Publications like Forbes and Bloomberg Billionaire Index clearly show that his net worth was/is, in fact, much closer to the $2.9 to $4 billion range. Is the difference a matter of business judgment, or, perhaps, a case of telling an untrue made-to-dazzle story? To many, his claimed net worth seems to be a story intentionally and knowingly exaggerated to the limits of belief. Trump has also claimed that he is a member of New York City’s famous Marble Collegiate Church. Recent searches of its records do not indicate that he has ever been a member of that church. Is this a clerical error or a falsification of the truth?
Unfortunately, as everyone knows, the candidates lie so much that it is now difficult to know which of their statements are true and which are false. To be sure, this is a fact-checker’s nightmare. Of course, these conditions leave citizens in a difficult position as they vote. That both are persistent liars is obvious. Are voters only left with a choice between the type of liar they want to vote for? Perhaps.
This election is surely best described as a disaster for American presidential politics. No matter which candidate wins, American citizens lose. There is, however, a lesson to be learned here. Looking ahead to future presidential elections, voters should be encouraged—no, urged to examine more closely—the moral fiber of potential candidates well in advance of the election season.
— Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest books are Thinking Cal Coolidge and The Soul of Grove City College: A Personal View.