Every national election cycle in the US affords fresh opportunities for speeches calculated to assure us that our president will not only be a capable executive and commander-in-chief but will be our philosopher-in-residence and faithful high priest of the civil religion. The President has become the shepherd of the national soul.

In the UK, the head of church and state (the monarch) is a different person from the head of government (the prime minister). However, in the US we combine these offices in one. Maybe that’s one reason, historically, why we place so much weight on our presidents to embody our own spiritual aspirations and convictions. Yet since the Constitution distinguishes clearly between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions (shaped by Madison’s training under Princeton Presbyterian’s John Witherspoon as well as American Baptists), that sacred trust cannot favor any particular confession. Hence the tightrope one must walk: required to steward a broad civil religion (basically, a morality grounded in a Supreme Being who has a special place for America in his plan), displaying some personal commitment to a particular Judeo-Christian community, while not giving preference to his own denomination in making policy.

Quite a number of past presidents would not have made it across that tightrope today. In terms of personal beliefs and commitments, George Washington seems to have been a more faithful Mason than a Christian. One thinks of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who quite publicly revealed their profound disagreement with orthodox Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ. By the best accounts, Abraham Lincoln was a very nominal Baptist—probably Unitarian in his views—who nevertheless shared the public sense of belonging to a chosen nation, favored by Providence yet for that very reason subject to the judgment of Providence for failing to fulfill its sacred mandate.

Understandably, most conservative evangelicals today would identify the policies of Woodrow Wilson as part of the drift toward big government. Confessionally, however, he was a staunch “Princeton” Presbyterian. (B. B. Warfield nominated him to Princeton’s presidency.) In modern British history, the Labor Party relied heavily on the intellectual capital and numerical strength of nonconformist Puritans and evangelicals. Westminster Chapel’s famous pastor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was personally committed to the labor movement—and the Labor Party. Why? Because he believed that humanity was created in God’s image and therefore are “men, not pigs.” Christians sharing the same theology have always disagreed about which policies are most consistent with it. Unlike the old covenant, the New Testament doesn’t include a blueprint for a nation’s foreign and domestic policy.

Although confessional distinctives have been largely downplayed in American evangelicalism in favor of the experience of being born again, theology has moved from the back page to headline news in recent weeks. Are Mormons Christians? Is President Obama truly born again or is he a liberal Protestant, agnostic—or even a secret Muslim? Is he driven by a theology that is different from the one that most Americans would espouse? In spite of several marriages, would Newt Gingrich’s policies support family values? Is America the last bastion of good in the world and therefore the focus of Satan’s attacks?

Meanwhile, striking a superior pose, secularists pretend that they are above all of this “abolute truth” business, even as they pronounce edicts of atheistic materialism that they have no scruples about imposing on the public for its own good. It’s all about politics, they say, and playing the religion card is just another way of trying to win an election.

Secularists like to pitch themselves as tolerant caretakers of democracy, claiming that the quest for “abolute truth” (and the conviction that one possesses it) lies at the heart of the culture wars. Recently, one writer opined, “The essence of democracy is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don’t discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, to change. There can be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view. It’s a process without end, whose outcome should never be predictable. A claim to absolute truth—any absolute truth—stops the process of democracy

However, secularists are no less convinced that they are right—even about absolute truth. They just have different authorities and inhabit different communities that affirm their convictions. There are plenty of core convictions and values that are not “open to question, to debate, to change” on their side. And that’s as it should be—must be, in fact. Whether in science or public policy or a religious community, you can’t leave everything open or there is no shared consensus on anything and thus no community.

It is not that theology doesn’t matter in the public square, or this election year in particular. President Obama does indeed draw deeply from his own worldview, and this worldview is laden with theological assumptions and beliefs—as every worldview is. There is no such thing as a “naked public square.” We bring ourselves to every discussion and any religion or worldview that is merely private, with no relevance for how we live in the world, is about as publicly interesting as stamp collecting. Do I see a lot of contradictions between Mr. Obama’s puplic profession of faith in Christ and his stands on various important issues? Yes, of course I do. I also see contradictions on the Republican side. I also see on both sides a tendency to claim more warrant from Jesus and the Bible for views that one would hold (in fact many non-Christians do hold) apart from it. Danger lurks not in favoring certain policies that can’t claim explicit biblical warrant, but in claiming carte blanche divine authority for these views. Secularists are mistaken in thinking that God’s ultimate authority doesn’t matter; believers err when they fail to realize that their interpretation of Scripture and application of biblical teaching to specific policies are always shaped by a lot more than Scripture itself. Political liberals and conservatives seem to me often to over-interpret some passages and under-interpret others according to an ideology they would have regardless of their faith.

The real issue is whether the confusion of kingdoms (which can only lead to a bland civil religion) is creating an atmosphere that brings harm to the cause of Christ and the common good of our society. Recently, Franklin Graham has explained his personal test for candidates, which seems to be reducible to the validity of their personal testimony to having a personal relationship with Jesus. For Senator Santorum, it’s a more objective test: a question of one’s worldview and the theology undergirding it. Boston College’s Stephen Prothero offered a sane analysis of Senator Rick Santorum’s statement about President Obama’s “phony theology.”

To speak freely, I have serious questions about the theology of all of the candidates. Many Roman Catholics would parse their theology differently in relation to the environment than Senator Santorum. In terms of moral fitness, many bishops and priests would be more concerned about a candidate (Newt Gingrich) with multiple marriages being the standard-bearer for a platform of family values. I have lots of problems with Roman Catholic theology. Some of the candidates earlier in the race had close ties to extreme Pentecostals. Their rhetoric of “dominion” and claims to private revelation were more worrisome to me than the religious or irreligious beliefs of anybody in the field. This is even before we talk about Mormons or liberal Protestants! Where does the religious test stop?

We do not have access to the hearts or minds of others—not through their personal testimony or to their personal morality. We only have access to their public profession and to the policies that appear most directly to derive from it.

Secularists need to back off of their smug illusion of neutrality in religious and worldview matters. One’s faith—and worldview—matter. Many in the media don’t realize this because religious convictions and practices are not important to them personally. With little or no background or training in any particular religious tradition, they assume that the rest of us leave our deepest convictions at the door of the voting booth. Until they see the significance of ultimate convictions for the lives of millions of their fellow-Americans, they will miss the story behind the story again and again. There should be freedom to explain how it matters in shaping policies directed at the public good.

Yet believers also must stop expecting politicians to double as high priests of a false religion, an idolatrous religion, that substitutes real confessional communities for a generic moralism. Even where a candidate’s confession differs from our own, we have to ask what we’re looking for in our political leaders. Are we seeking an icon who will reassure us that even in a wildly pluralistic and relativistic society we are the ones in the right, safely ensconced in the walls of absolute truth? Or do we have the more modest goal of electing presidents who will eschew any messianic mantle and pursue policies that we believe are more likely to do more good than harm to the republic’s common good and the Constitution that they swear to uphold?