Friday, May 21, 2004

Misunderstandings of Religion and Politics

Comments in the media on the relation of religion and politics frequently betray ignorance, prejudice, and confusion. Many journalists think there are only two options:

1. faith dictates political policies.
2. faith is a private matter and has no implications for political decision-making.

Some examples:

E. J. Dionne, Jr., in his op-ed piece "Kerry and his church" (The Washington Post, May 4), refers, to John Kennedy's statement that his faith would have no effect on how he governed. This is not Dionne's position, but Kennedy is widely quoted as having the right idea.

Andrew Sullivan, in Time (May 24, p. 94), suggests that John Kerry has to convince the Catholic Church that he is not “too American, I mean in the sense that religious faith is a personal matter, that it can be sealed off from public life, that it doesn’t dictate political views on any one issue or another.” Being American implies on this view a total divorce of faith and politics.

Brian Urquhart, in The New York Review of Books (June 10, p.10), speaking of President Bush’s frequent use of religious language in public discourse, raises the question of “where, in public, personal faith should stop and national leadership begin,” as if the two were opposites on a continuum, so that pure national leadership would totally exclude personal faith.

For the secular purists, the second is the American way. Many suspect the first is a violation of church and state. There is a third alternative that is usually ignored. It can be stated as follows:

3. Religious faith has implications for politics, (the truth in 1 missed in 2.) but in our diverse society of many faiths and no faith, these implications should be stated, not in the religious terms of a particular denomination (the perversion of 1) but translated into the values found in the secular American tradition (the truth in 2). Position 2 implies that persons of faith must get their political values someplace other than their faith. The truth in 2 is that in a pluralistic society like ours politicians should not use the language of a particular religion or denomination. Moreover, religious doctrine as such has no authority in the political arena. The appeal must be to common values resident our secular history and culture. If politicians do use religiously-based language, it may be bad practice, but it is not a violation of church and state.

Some elaboration may be helpful, and while I speak only on Christians, the same would hold true for Jews, Muslims, and others. Christians have membership in two communities. They are believers in the church and citizens in the world. As church members Christians speak theologically in the language their faith provides them. As American citizens they speak the secular language provided by the American political tradition. When they assume one membership, the other is presupposed, and usually there is no reason to make the distinction. They form an organic whole. In ordinary life we move easily between the two sets of language and mix them constantly in ways that cause no confusion. However, when a Christian formally enters the political realm in our pluralistic society, other considerations come into play. Christians must remain true to their faith but speak to people of diverse religious persuasions as well as to pure secularists. Here is how it should go.

Faith has moral, social, and political implications. In church, believers can deal with these implications in religious terms. As citizens in the public sphere, they will speak of these implications in the language of the secular American political tradition as found in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other founding documents, writings, presidential speeches, Supreme Court decisions, and so on. They can even quote Jesus, the prophets and the apostles on the campaign trail as cultural figures of our past with sound ideas and values but not, as such, authoritative for secular politics.

The point is that Christian politicians do (should) not say that faith is a purely private matter and does not influence their politics in any way. What a travesty that would be! And it should provide more than a vague moral inspiration to do good things for people. They should say (or at least know in their hearts) that their faith is presupposed in all they say and do, but in politics they will use the language of the American tradition (which does contain some God language after all) to express the political implications of their private religion. As believers they know (or should) that Christian love and biblical justice, e. g., require universal health care, but they will advocate for it in the public sphere not in the language of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles but submit that it will facilitate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, will do justice for all, enhance equality, and promote the common welfare in accordance with American ideals.

The notion that faith is a purely private matter and contributes nothing but a moral urge to do what is right and just is an impoverished, insipid view of things. It abstracts faith from the whole of life. It also leaves open the question of where the candidate with a politically irrelevant faith does get his/her ideas, values, and convictions. They come from somewhere. It is legitimate to insist that a candidate must not claim that her/his proposals are valid because the Pope, the Bible, or religious dogma authorizes them and for that reason alone. If someone enters the public arena, the political and policy implications of that personal faith should embody the values of the secular American tradition and be stated in the language that heritage provides. There is enough congruity between Christian political ethics and the highest ideals of American history to make that proposal work. Christians may, of course, reasonably differ on what a detailed elaboration of Christian social ethics will contain.

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