Religion and Politics

Two of the most contentious subjects, indeed.  The cause of this particular essay is the New York Time’s debate titled ‘The Pulpit and the Ballot Box‘, which asked ‘Why do voters care about a candidate’s religion? Does it matter?’.  Many of the responses are interesting in their own right, particularly Mirsky’s assertion of an American, Nationalist ‘religion’ and Jillette’s defense of the American people (and, by extension, the credibility of democracy).

In most debates I see, I feel the urge to state my own response.  Usually, I resist.  (In the past, I have also lacked a ready platform to abuse.)  In this case, I will indulge in my own response, and also critique my fellow readers’ comments.

So why do voters care about a candidate’s religion, and why does it matter?

We care (the impersonal structure of ‘Voters care…’ as seen in Boyagoda’s response is condescending and also implies that the writer does not vote) because a believed religion is a significant portion of a person’s world-view and philosophy.  The strength of a person’s religious conviction is a measure of their holding certain moral and ethical propositions, which we may or may not agree with.  To quote commenter Steve Fankuchen:

It’s a whole lot easier to vote on the basis of an identity element, than it is to do the work of actually delving into the substance of issues.

Yes, it is lazy, but given the myriad lies and half-truths on the campaign trail, it is also a way to skip to the heart of the candidate’s philosophy – which may explain why they hem and haw so much when it comes to making such central points explicit, as it defeats the carefully crafted aura of vagueness.  That being said, even the variation within Christianity is sufficient to make Fankuchen’s point on laziness more than valid.  In short, religion is important in politics because we want to know what the candidate believes.

The follow-up question of what candidates’ religion means they will do is one few seem prepared to answer.  I have vivid (if decontextualized) memories of a recent presidential candidate responding to a question on the influence of his religion with a painfully meandering statement on universal values and the importance of serving the American public.  The correct answer should be that religion is primarily about right living and morality, but government (at least our Enlightenment informed Western democracy) is about tolerance and the ethics of getting along with the greatest freedom for the greatest number of people.

I have been developing definitions of ethics and morality for some time now (based in part on the idea of positive and negative rights), and will admit I’m not yet sure of the completeness.  As it stands, I propose:

Government is ethics, and ethics is what we can not afford to give others a choice about.  This is why the the most universal laws are so often edicts on what one must not do: forbidden acts such as murder and theft.

Living right is morality, and morality is the narrow and unbending path of what one must do.

Ethics allows much more than morality, but one’s idea of ethics must be consistent with one’s morality, and has that morality as its basic assumption.  Religion is morality, and so a candidate’s religion tells us what ethical systems they are likely to think defensible.  That is why a candidate’s religion should matter.

The line between Morality and Ethics is not always clear, and the temptation to colonize ethics with morality is omnipresent.  This is not just a religious temptation; atheists of course also have a morality, a vision of right-living, and they, like all humans, can forget humility and try to compress all lives into it.  In this context, theocracy is best defined as government by morality, no religion necessary. This definition is linguistically disturbing given the construction of the word ‘theocracy’, but consider that Mirsky discusses a (secular) American religion, and that Communism has also been described as a religion.

Which leads to the reader comments, of which a plurality state a certain opinion, as represented in the sample below:

Politicians should check their religious beliefs at the policy door. (Jim Kirk)

As soon as a politician speaks about his religion, how it is the center of his life and this country, he’s lost my vote. (judgeroybean)

…neither religious beliefs nor convictions has any place in the political arena. (Rebecca Rabinowitz)

The first question a citizen should ask any politician is “Are you a Christian or an American?”. (Dan Kravitz)

I could go on, but those cover the strain that seems so common, and is so dangerous.  Most charitably, most of them can be read as somewhat wild statements to the effect of ‘morality should not influence policy’.  After all, even when a disagreed-with religion is the moral ‘center’ that doesn’t mean the broader halo of ethics is necessarily problematic.

Still, the venom of many of these comments (with Kravitz at the extreme) suggests something worse.  Many of these people are saying, ‘if you believe what I do not (i.e., Religion), you should not vote nor run for office nor have a say in government’, and that is exactly the kind of theocratic dystopia they claim to fear from religion.

I suppose the difference is they would agree with this kind.

On a related legal matter, I also take issue with a certain Constitutional analysis.  Here are two more comments:

Nobody should run for office or vote who rejects the spirit of the Constitution. The Constitution states that there should be no Religious Test for any public office. For a candidate to make any aspect of religious belief or practice a part of his campaign, or for a voter to consider any aspect of religion as relevant to her vote, is to disrespect the spirit of the Constitution. Neither is permissible. (Shane Mage)

When will we abide by our Constitution and prohibit any discussion of religion whatsoever in elections for public office at any level? No candidate should be asked about his/her religion, and no candidate should talk about his/her religion during a campaign. There should be no religious invocation at inaugurations, either, nor any oath sworn by observance of a holy book.(L)

The Religious Test in the Constitution is a legal boundary of government policy.  As long as the country is a democracy, people are freely capable to decide that their vote has a personal ‘religious test’.  The proscription is only against the state saying that voters can only decide among candidates that pass a government-enforced test.

Also often overlooked is that the separation of church and state was originally only a Federal matter.  Massachusetts was, when the thirteen colonies rebelled, an extremely strict Puritan theocracy, and only non-Catholic Christians were allowed to hold public office (THAT is the religious test the Federal constitution banned, but the boundaries of Federal law were not intended to overwrite the State constitutions, and Massachusetts would not have signed the Constitution if it had).  For a fascinating investigation, including some discussion of what the separation of Church and State meant to the founding fathers, read this Smithsonian article.

It is very true that Jefferson and Madison both felt very strongly for a secular state, but the existence of the state of Massachusetts suggests that they believed the United States to be large enough, tolerant enough, to survive the existence of theocracies – so long as they remained local. Disaffected Massachusetts people could (and did) move to the secular state of Rhode Island.

Whatever Madison and Jefferson’s (probably and justifiably disapproving) views on Massachusetts, it’s quite clear from the Smithsonian article that the two viewed the separation of Church and State as a standing guarantee of the freedom to publicly discuss one’s faith or lack thereof – an enforced silence on God and beliefs was pretty much the exact opposite of their goal. There’s a reason Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion are both honored as being part of the very First Amendment.

Ironically, the anti-religious test that those two commenters would like to see enacted probably would violate a certain Constitutional clause.

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