Getting faith out of politics

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. —The first amendment to the US Constitution

State-sponsored secularism, legally tightening its control, is ever more openly intolerant of rival belief systems. …the courts continue to set the establishment and free exercise provisions at odds with each other, to the detriment of individual and institutional religious freedom. … If present legal trends continue, it is not fanciful to suppose that the situation of religious believers in secular America will come to resemble dhimmitude—the status of non-Muslims in a number of Islamic countries. The dhimmi is tolerated so long as his religion is kept private and his public acts do not offend the state religion. —Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, First Things, November, 2004, pp.12,13

At this very moment, millions of Americans are at the polls, voting or waiting in line to vote. By now, they will have formed their own private judgments about the two candidates for the presidency, and they will cast their vote for the man who is most compatible with themselves.

Fear is playing a much greater role in the process this year than it usually does.

Many will vote for John Kerry because they are afraid of the unchecked militarism of George Bush, or afraid that he is baiting the Islamic terrorists by his adventurism in the middle east, or afraid that he intends to create a theocracy, or afraid that he will take away our freedoms in his zeal to control our private lives.

Many will vote for George Bush because they are afraid of the reflexive dovishness of John Kerry, or afraid that he will grant the United Nations authority over our security, or afraid that he will appoint judges who will erode our national values, or afraid that he will install a progressive cabal with a mandate to institute liberal programs, which will sap the strength of our economy and destroy our cherished cultural institutions.

Supporters of each candidate are also afraid of the other’s religious beliefs.

According to Kerry supporters, George Bush believes he is God’s chosen son. He believes he hears the voice of God. His fundamentalist Christian faith makes him a dangerous Bible-thumper, anti-progressive at best, mentally unstable at worst.

According to Bush supporters, John Kerry has no other God than himself. He heeds not the voice of God, nor the voice of the church, but the voice of modernism. His liberal Christian faith is utterly hollow and devoid of anything but a few tepid traditions, making him blind at best, utterly nihilistic at worst.

…politics is most importantly a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion, whether or not it is called by that name. &#151Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, 1984

There is no such thing as a secular political state. Secularism itself is a religious value system, whether you wish to call it that or not. Human beings are fundamentally religious, whether they worship the Judeo-Christian Yahweh, or the Islamic Allah, or the earth goddess Gaia. Or if they worship themselves—nihilism is a religion, anti-authoritarianism is a religion, sexual licentiousness is a religion, materialism is a religion, progressivism is a religion—all of us worship something, and give ourselves to it body, mind, heart and soul.

Which means that there is no such thing as separating religious faith from politics. Yes, it is possible, and good, to keep the institutional church separated from our political systems, if only because the institutional church has historically not been immune to the siren songs of political power.

But, there is no separating the heart faiths we each dedicate ourselves to from ourselves. In fact, it is a modern fallacy to think that matters of heart and faith can somehow be compartmentalized from other aspects of our human experience. That we can put faith in a closet and drag it out once a week, then put it safely back where it won’t cause any trouble.

Religious devotion to a set of guiding beliefs about the world and humanity is so completely integrated into our psyches that there is no separating the two. We are what we believe. We act always, always, in a manner that is consistent with the internal guiding light of our religious worldview. We may do so knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or accidentally, but we follow our religious beliefs wherever they lead us.

It may be the case, as Mary Ann Glendon suggests, that we who are overtly religious will one day be required to keep our faith under wraps. But it will never be the case that religious belief will be excised from our political systems, or that the public square will ever be scrubbed clean of faith and religious devotion.

We all worship something. And we all take our worship with us wherever we go, whether to the polling booth or the great halls of political power.

There are only two kinds of people in the world: those whose worship is anchored in the acknowledgment of a transcendent Power greater than themselves; and those whose deny the transcendent, whose worship is an embrace of the ephemeral and of human experience.

Both are examples of religious faith. The question is, Which worldview makes for a better political society?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Somehow I missed this post when it was new, so am responding belatedly — my apologies for that.

    I like your summation of how each side feared things about the other side’s candidate. I thought that was an excellent pair of paragraphs, and sadly true.

    I am unfamiliar with Mary Ann Glendon, but doubt that it will ever come to pass that people of overt faith will have to hide their light under a bushel, even if our nation’s leadership were to shift far to the left. I similarly doubt the fears that I’ve seen spread among political and religious liberals, that Mr. Bush and his cronies intend to create a dominionist theocracy! Both of these notions strike me as fearmongering, and therefore not especially helpful.

    I agree that there’s a way in which our faith and our politics are always entwined. And I agree that we would do well to seek leaders whose leadership is grounded in an understanding that we are not masters of the universe.

    My concern remains with what I perceive as a blurring of the boundaries between church and state. I respect that Mr. Bush may be guided by his Christian faith, but if his faith requires him to take actions which run counter to my interpretation of my faith, where is my recourse? I would like to think that I would have similar qualms even if he and I shared both political views and religious identity. The larger point is, if our leaders use their state positions to further their churchly aims, they’re necessarily not-representing the needs of some of their constituents.

    Naturally I have a vested interest in keeping church and state separate in my country, since I don’t subscribe to the teachings of a church, per se. *grin* But for my part, I don’t intend to live in the Jewish state, either. My desire is to live in a land where all faiths are respected and no one interpretation of anybody’s scripture is encoded in our system of civil law.

    So I like your point that it is possible, and good, to keep the institutional church away from our political systems. 🙂 Once again we begin from disparate places and find ourselves walking parallel paths!

  2. I’m glad to see that we agree on most of what I wrote. There is one comment I’d like to make, however.

    Rachel said: My concern remains with what I perceive as a blurring of the boundaries between church and state. I respect that Mr. Bush may be guided by his Christian faith, but if his faith requires him to take actions which run counter to my interpretation of my faith, where is my recourse?

    I think the “blurring of the boundaries between church and state” is almost entirely left-wing fundraising hype. It isn’t happening. What is happening is that groups like the ACLU are aggressively making public schools hostile to student-led religious pursuits on campus, are erasing religious symbols from political entities (such as the forced removal of the cross from the seal of the city of LA), and are forcing religious organizations to adopt secular policies to which they are opposed on faith grounds (such as Catholic Charities in SF having to provide their employees with contraceptive health benefits as a condition for doing their work in the SF Bay area).

    The problem is that I can’t think of any legislation enacted by President Bush that was motivated entirely by his faith, or that somehow created a burden exclusively on citizens who don’t share his particular faith leanings. Recourse against what, exactly?

    His declaration of war against the “axis of evil” shows how his faith colors his view of the world, but Kerry himself agreed that given the same data, he would have made many of the same policy decisions with respect to terrorism and Iraq — using different language, sure, but ending up in much the same place. So if Bush speaks about a poltical issue with faith-like language, and Kerry speaks about it with wonkish language, but we end up in the same place in the end… is there really a problem?

    I don’t see that it makes much difference (except in the realm of hypotheticals) whether a president is religious or not when it comes to policy matters. A president is too constrained by public opinion and by Congress to create laws and policies that would, for instance, favor Christians and harm non-Christians of whatever stripe.