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.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Kennedy and His Church

President Kennedy has been much and often praised lately because he indicated that religion was a private matter and would not affect his presidential decision making.It is the right way to relate religion and politics say the commentators. I think Kennedy's position is profoundly ambiguous and deeply flawed.

Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 at a time when his Catholicism had raised questions about his full adherence to the separation of church and state, John F. Kennedy said that church-state issues were not the most important matters. The real concerns were "the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms -- an America with too many slums, with too few schools." These "are not religious issues -- for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers." He asserted that religion is a private matter. He went on to assure the Baptists in this way:

Whatever issues may come before me as President -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

To steal from Immanuel Kant, we have here a "nest of dialectical difficulties." Let us analyze these assertions one by one.

1. Kennedy says hunger, health care, war, and the like are not religious issues because they "know no religious barriers." If he means that all great religions urge care and compassion for the needy, that is true. Perhaps he means also that non-religious people may be in favor of feeding the hungry. In any case, that does not mean that they are "not religious issues." Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all think they are. Jesus certainly thought feeding the hungry was central to faith in God. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it clear that one's eternal destiny depends on just such things.

2. Kennedy further states that religion is "a private matter." If he means that religion is a matter of inward piety and love of God in the hearts of individual persons, that cannot be disputed. But that does not mean that trust in God has no essential connection with morality, social ethics, or politics. Inward, private piety has ethical and social consequences. Individual religion has political implications. The prophets of Israel left no doubt about that.

3. Finally, Kennedy says that he will be guided by his own conscience and that he will not be dictated to by religious authorities. If he means that he will not let Catholic Bishops or the Pope or church dogma dictate his political choices, that is worthy and commendable. But we are entitled to ask what informs his conscience. If it is not in some significant way guided by his religion, then he has some explaining to do about what does inform his politics. Morality and social ethics rest on something, depend on some set of assumptions about right and wrong, good and evil. If his conscience is not guided at all by his religion, then we need to ask what kind of religion he has or is referring to. It does not sound like the Roman Catholic Christianity he professes to believe. Kennedy says he will be guided by what his conscience tells him is the "national interest." But is the national interest totally devoid of moral considerations? I hope not.

Kennedy wants to assert his unqualified belief in the separation of church and state, but he gets tripped up by seeming to confuse this with religion and politics. Given the setting, it may be that the main point he wanted to make was his independence of church authorities and Catholic dogma in governing the country. Perhaps he feared that any mention of a connection between his religious faith and his moral commitments might intensify the problem he was trying to get out of the way. Nevertheless, the statements quoted show little understanding of the complex relation between faith, conscience, morality, and social ethics. They show no awareness that in biblical religion ones relation to God has consequences for how we treat other people, especially the weak, the outcasts, and the sick and hungry. In our time and society that necessarily has a political dimension, since we have to ask what we can do together as a nation to help the helpless, seek peace among nations, and promote justice for all. A purely private, inward piety that does not have social and political implications is not one, I hope, that upon reflection Mr. Kennedy would want to defend.

The missing ingredient, I would urge, is that he should acknowledge that his religion has political consequence but that he would express the implications of his private faith in language and values located in secular American history and traditions, especially those articulated in the founding documents. He should state them as American ideas and ideals not in theological or religious or Catholic terms. This assumes, of course, that there is sufficient congruity between Christian faith and secular American ideals to allow this proposition to work. I assert that there is. In fact, one of the sources of the values enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is the Bible.

These simple distinctions and clarifications are absent in most politicians and journalists. They have simplistic views that will not stand close scrutiny in terms of a sophisticated and defensible understanding of the relation of private religious faith to public political policy.