Faith & Politics

This post is based on reactions I received to being happy that President Obama revealed that helping the poor was a manifestation of his faith. Here’s the AZ Central article.

First ground rules, I accept that there is an American value to separate church and state. And, I believe that this value is not limited to the strict legal confines of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In other words, there are steps that a person can take that would violate our national value in keeping religion separate from governing that do not necessarily give rise to a judicial cause of action under the First Amendment.

Second, just to be clear, there is no Christian value that parallels this. Liberal Christians sometimes like take the Give unto Caesar passage as Jesus advocating that faith is separate from government. Not so. If you read the passage you will realize the Jesus uses to quote as an indirect way of saying that we, who bear the image of God, should be given to God; thus, dodging the trap set by his detractor.

So, let’s imagine that I am a liberal Christian who is a member of my city council. It would be wrong for me to use my governmental power to promote my church. I should not use council meetings as a forum to encourage people to attend my church. I should not push for city contracts with church members, or members of similarly aligned churches. It would also be wrong for me to use my church affiliation to gain more political power. So, I should not say vote for me because I’m a real Christian. Nor should my pastor encourage people from the church to vote for me.

By contrast, it is entirely appropriate for my faith to influence the decisions that I make as city council member. Indeed, it would be impossible for it to be otherwise. As a Christian, I believe that all people are a creation of God, thus I believe in equality. I believe that our salvation is based on how we care for the poor. Thus, I want to ensure there is a social safety net. Likewise, if my faith is going to be worth anything, it needs to address how we live which necessarily includes so-called political issues.

The result is that I can become frustrated by the conduct of people if (1) they misuse their official power to promote their faith, or (2) if their faith properly influences the way they conduct themselves in office, but I find their faith inspired values to be repulsive.

Examples of (1) include printing “In God We Trust” on our money, having a national day of prayer, holding a giant campaign event about prayer, or pastors supporting specific candidates from the pulpit. Examples of (2) include opposing requirements that pharmacists fill birth control prescriptions and opposing gay rights. I actually think (2) is more of a problem in recent politics.

One that sits on the edge for me is teaching creationism. On the one hand, it promotes the creationist’s religious views, based on themes similar to those presented in some parts of the Bible. On the other hand, it is an expression of their world view–which is appropriate–but it just happens that their world view is a nonsensical perversion of the faith. Maybe it is wrong on both principles.

Does this distinction work?

13 thoughts on “Faith & Politics”

  1. I have a lot of thoughts. I migt break up this response a bit because I might think of things later, or I migt not want to muddy one issue with another.

    First, I think the notion that one's religius faith should not influence their political life silly and impractical. In fact it would be a strike against someone if they said, "I believe in a creator of the universe, and that creator has a plan, and I believe that I can understand at least a part of that plan, but I will not use that knowledge in my working lfe." Clearly this is impossible and stupid.

  2. I'm not sure I believe that it is wrong for a religious leader to endorse a specific candidate.

    I know that I think it's wrong for churches to be tax exempt, and perhaps that is related. I certainly *think* it's related in my head… I want chirches to be entirely private, and if they are, then why would it be wrong to endorse a candidate?

  3. Teaching Creationism is wrong, but I'm not sure the strongest grounds for that claim is a separation argument.

    It's simply wrong that the Universe was built in 7 days 7,000 years ago. Of course it is their religion that teaches them that, and for that reason they should not be able to force that to be taught, but that seems a settled issue–we do not allow the teaching of the miracles either, and presumably that is just as much an article of their faith.

    Creationism is wrong to teach because it is factually incorrect, made clear by every line of evidence we can dream up.

    We may only be able to stop the teaching of Creationism via the legal process of appealing to the establishment clause, but if we're talking about the moral *why* of not to teach it, well that's just because it's wrong to teach a legend as a science.

  4. I think if your faith or religion is an active part of your life it would be impossible to parse that out from your psyche and be able to hold public office and not have it influence your policies and decisions. I am not a person of faith, but I can not separate myself from the moral teachings of my mother, nor my socioeconomic class when I was a child, nor my sexuality, nor my gender. All of things influence me and make me who I am. Those qualifiers would probably preclude me from ever being elected, because I am so unlike the electorate. If I am elected to office, I come with my collective experience. It would be naive to think those in leadership could check their religion at the door. Most people wouldn't want them too.

  5. Hi Jim! I agree with you on the basic division of this issue (i.e., the issue raised by the President's comments at the prayer breakfast) into 2 parts. Those 2 sub-issues being that he : (i) relies on the bible to determine public policy; and (ii) connected his religious views so closely with public policy at an official event.

    Regarding the first sub-issue, I agree with you and the other commenters that it is not reasonable to expect a politician to leave his/her religious beliefs at the door when making policy choices. I still object to the reliance on religious texts to determine policy on a number of grounds, mostly because I do not believe in the underlying presumptions of such texts (i.e., the existence of the deities named therein) but also because such texts are notoriously subject to competing interpretations. However, I know that is a debate that goes way beyond the President's comments.

    That said, my real, initial objection was to your reaction, and not to the President's comments per se. I objected to your endorsement of those comments because, as noted in your essay, you object when other leaders cite the bible for other policies. As I noted, I feel it would be hypocritical to object only to results counter to your own political views.

    In any event, I do not believe any part of this first sub-issue implicates the First Amendment, so long as religious beliefs merely inform a politician's views.

    Regarding the second sub-issue, I believe the entire concept of the National Prayer Breakfast is tantamount to a public endorsement of Christianty, or at least religion generally, in violation of the church/state part of the First Amendment. That view is not diminished by the President's comments connecting his religious beliefs to specific policies, although, having now read the full text of the comments, I concede that he did not do so as directly as the AZ Repulic article would suggest.

    Anyway, thanks for including me in the discussion! I appreciate very much your willingness to listen to competing views.

  6. For the record I agree that prayers before congressional sessions and prayer breakfasts and national days of prayer and the Illionoisschool moment of silence are all violations of the spirit of the 1st Amendment.

  7. For the record I agree that prayers before congressional sessions and prayer breakfasts and national days of prayer and the Illionoisschool moment of silence are all violations of the spirit of the 1st Amendment.

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