Monday, December 31, 2007

What Role Should Religion Play in Politics?

What role should religion play in politics?

That question has suggested itself for many reasons during the already too-long 2008 presidential campaign.

It’s a question of particular interest to me because I’m a lifetime political junkie, a student of history, and a Lutheran pastor.

There are, it seems to me, three main reasons we’re asking the question in a major way this year.

The first is the candidacy of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Personally, while I have the same disagreements with Mormonism as those advanced by evangelical Christians, I’ve never felt that Romney’s religion should preclude him from consideration for the presidency.

Article 6 of the Constitution says that there should be no religious test for holding federal office. As an American, I believe in the rightness of that provision.

But I also believe in it because I’m a Christian. Jesus’ command to love my neighbor entails appreciating the abilities and skills of all people, even those who don’t share my faith.

While polls show that there are some Christians who simply would not vote for a Mormon for president, I don’t think that this is anything like a majority view.

And frankly, I think that the question of whether a Mormon would be accepted in a position of political importance was answered in 1953. It was then that Ezra Taft Benson, a high official in the Mormon religion, was confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration. In those days, the post was a lot more important and highly visible than it is today.

In 1968, Mitt Romney’s father, Michigan governor George Romney ran for the Republican presidential nomination. His bid came to grief over what I thought was a vicious misrepresentation of something he told a New Hampshire radio interviewer about the Johnson Administration’s attempts to, as he saw it, brainwash him regarding the War in Vietnam. The media and Romney’s opponents, Richard Nixon among them, portrayed the former auto executive as susceptible to brainwashing, not strong enough to be president. It’s a tragedy that George Romney’s candidacy was brought to an end in that way. Despite the exaggerations of his son, the elder Romney was deeply committed to civil rights. He was a can-do guy. But it wasn’t because of his Mormon religion that Romney, who later served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon Administration, failed to become president. His Mormonism wasn’t even considered. Nor should it have been.

Two factors have made Mitt Romney’s Mormon affiliation significant this year. One is the importance of the Religious Right in the Republican coalition. Frankly, I dislike the Religious Right. (And the Religious Left, for that matter.) There is simply no way to draw a straight line from faith in Jesus Christ or the Bible as the Word of God to a consistent political philosophy. As a Christian leader, it deeply disturbs me when pastors or other Christian leaders presume to say that Jesus is a Republican or a Democrat. Or that God is a liberal or a conservative. Christians who make such claims subordinate the Deity, the One I believe to be Lord and Creator of heaven and earth, to temporary, temporal philosophies and preferences. In effect, they shove God aside and instead, worship their parties or platforms. Nonetheless, the Religious Right has put a premium on candidates conforming not just to their political views, but also their claimed religious doctrines.

Romney’s Mormonism also became important because, quite frankly, he made it that way. Over a year ago, Romney supporter Hugh Hewitt asked Christian pastor-bloggers to say whether they felt that Romney’s religion should preclude his being considered for president by Christians. Mine was the first reply Hewitt published, I believe. Simply, I said that, no, Christians should not dismiss a Romney candidacy because he was a Mormon.

But clearly, the Romney campaign felt something like paranoia on this issue. The prime campaign biography, written by my friend Hewitt, is called A Mormon in the White House? It was one of many elements of an effort on the part of the Romney campaign to earn the support of the Religious Right.

Every politician, of course, wants to gain support with important constituencies by demonstrating that they hold common beliefs and values. But Romney has appeared to attempt to appeal to the Religious Right by blurring the very real differences that exist between Christian beliefs and Mormon teachings.

This, it seems to me, was an incredibly stupid thing to do, politically speaking. That’s because the Religious Right has changed. For all my criticism of it, the Christian conservative political movement has attained a certain maturity. One characteristic of that maturity is that voters who identify with the movement no longer move in lockstep with their so-called “leaders.” Another is that neither its leaders or its rank and file voters expect that politicians are going to agree with them on every issue. Pat Robertson, after all, has endorsed Rudy Giuliani. The movement is also wary of pols who give lip service to all their issues yet, like many Republicans for the past twenty-five years, have done nothing to change what they see as wrong in Washington and the United States.

Mitt Romney would have done better at appealing to the Religious Right if he had, instead of trying to appear to be a kind of Baptist Mormon, simply said, as John Kennedy did of his Catholicism in 1960, “I’m not a Mormon running for president. I’m an American running for president who happens to be a Mormon.” He could have then taken his own religious affiliation off the table and simply demonstrated common political cause with those to whom he’s been trying to appeal.

Romney, in his “Faith in America” speech, delivered at the presidential library of George H.W. Bush, seemed, in part, to deliver such a message. But then, he said that freedom needs religion and religion needs freedom. While I personally believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition fosters the kind of civility and respect for neighbor that allows for the functioning of democracy, Christian faith, in particular, hasn’t needed freedom of religion to grow. Indeed, it seems to grow best and strongest when its natural inclination for subversiveness is given full vent. Historically, Christian faith has always grown strongest under the threat and persecution of repressive regimes. Freedom, then, isn’t a necessary prerequisite for religious belief. Nor is it impossible for freedom to develop without religion.

Be that as it may, after seeming to want to take religion off the table, Romney put it back, appearing to arrogantly tell those who have no faith that their participation in the political process was unwelcome.

A second reason we’re asking what role religion should play in the 2008 presidential campaign is the candidacy of Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor is also a former Baptist pastor.

Being a pastor should not automatically disqualify a person from consideration for the presidency or any other political office. (Although as a pastor who has run for political office myself--I ran for the Ohio House of Representatives in 2004, I no longer think it’s a good idea for preachers to be candidates while still serving as pastors.) One ordained clergy person has served as president, James A. Garfield, his presidency cut short by an assassin’s bullet. (Garfield, a congressional veteran of unimpugned personal integrity, is considered to have been one of the most well-prepared persons ever to become president.)

Ordained clergy persons have served in other elective political offices with distinction. The late Father Robert Drinan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, served in Congress until Pope John Paul II banned priests from serving in elective political office, forcing Drinan to step down. Today, Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, a former Congressman, is popular.

But I have been disturbed by the ways in which the affable Huckabee has used his faith and his one-time status as a pastor. Advertisements in Iowa have touted him as a “Christian leader.”

He also, I believe, draws less than obvious lines between his religious and his political convictions.

Take the matter of homosexuality, for example. Most Christians accept the traditional teaching that homosexual practice is contrary to God’s will, on a par with premarital sex. Sex, it’s taught, is a gift from God reserved for married people to seal their relationship, provide for their mutual enjoyment, and, sometimes, to create families.

But this is a religious view, not a political one. The Christian should have no interest in imposing it on others through the political process in a pluralistic society. A Christian might well believe that if states authorize homosexual unions, it will not threaten traditional Christian marriages and it will allow states to do the same thing they do with heterosexual unions: safeguard health, ensure insurability, and provide for the custody of children and the disposition of property when relationships are broken by death or other causes.

Yet, Huckabee seems to want to impose a particular Christian approach to this issue. He seems to want to coerce people into living as if they were Christians. But Christian faith and Christian behavior can never be coerced.

A third reason we’re asking what role religion should play in the 2008 presidential campaign, I think, is the existence of a nasty strain of atheism exemplified by such people as journalist Christopher Hitchens. It dismisses any positive attributes associated with religious belief and, effectively, calls for its total elimination from cultural life. Frankly, I think that this is, partly, the natural and unfortunate pushback against the legalism and arrogance associated with the Religious Right, which has done great damage to the cause of Christ, in which I deeply believe. It saddens me.

So, what role should religion play in the 2008 campaign?

For all voters, I do think that questions about candidates’ religious convictions are legitimate insofar as they tell us something about them. These convictions may, in fact, tell us nothing. For one thing, candidates may lie about their religious convictions. Generations of politicians have said, “God bless America,” while, in their daily lives, worshiping their egos, their bank books, or their libidos, among other little gods. Candidates who espouse certain religious beliefs also may not, in fact, adhere to their convictions with much commitment.

But a candidates’ religion is at least as legitimate a field of inquiry as their resumes, hobbies, and organizational memberships. Each may tell voters something important about their presidential wannabes. (In turn, presidential candidates should feel as free to say, “This far and no more” in talking about their religious convictions as they do about, say, their sex lives.)

I wouldn’t necessarily vote against someone because he was an atheist (something I used to be) or for someone because she was a Lutheran (something I have been for the past thirty-one years). But I am interested in knowing what effect, if any, those convictions have on the ways candidates make decisions, view other people, prioritize justice, think about national life, and so on. This seems reasonable to me.

The problem is that some candidates seem more interested in running for national pastor than for President of the United States. That seems like a mistake to me.

[FYI: Here is a link to a series I did early this year on how Christians might view the 2008 presidential race. And here is a series on how one of our presidents, Abraham Lincoln, once dismissive of religious belief, theologized in his second Inaugural Address. Finally, here is a piece I wrote on the question of how Christian George W. Bush’s second Inaugural Address was. It wasn’t.]

[This is being cross-posted at RedBlue and The Moderate Voice.]


Charlie said...

Excellent post, Mark. We Christians have a big challenge in the political sphere because we have to defend pluralism with all of our hearts, all while holding within us a certainty that the Lord we serve and worship is the source of Truth.

We have to be humble enough to admit that we, ourselves, don't always understand God's Truth. And even when we do, we have to be humble enough to not do anything to disenfranchise the other citizens who may disagree with us, and have every right to do so.

Politically, it's a mistake to make faith central in the politics of a candidate because it alienates and disenfranchises those who don't agree.

Spiritually, it's a mistake to wrap oneself in faith because it will inevitably alienate some from Christ himself, and that would be a great, great sin.

Blondie ~ Vintage Primitives said...

I have found your blog by surfing a few different times and just wanted to say that I find your writing quite interesting and sound. I haven't found one candidate yet that I can warm up to. My Daddy always says you can get into office as white as a dove and leave office with a greasy black tar on you.
Thank you.