10 Reasons To Scrutinize A Candidate’s Faith (or not)

This week Patheos has asked its bloggers whether a candidate’s faith matters. To answer, I decided to rewrite a post from over a year ago. In what follows, I offer ten key considerations about whether and how a particular candidate’s faith should matter to voters and be scrutinized on that account.

1. Private religious views should be irrelevant to public service because a public servant should keep her private religious views out of her decisions for the public. But if we cannot assume that a given candidate for public office acknowledges this principle, we need to inquire about their views on the relationship between faith and government before trusting them to rule appropriately.

When questions arose about whether or not John F. Kennedy would be able to fulfill his duties to the United States of America as president autonomously independent of Vatican influence, Kennedy’s response was to allay all fears and unequivocally stress his commitment to serving America in a secular way which respected the absolute separation of church and state and everyone’s absolute right to conscience in matters of belief.  He explicitly stressed that he opposed numerous possible forms of imposition of private religious beliefs into the shaping of public policy.  Any candidate who committed him or herself in word and practice to the principles forcefully presented below would be, in my mind, utterly exempt from any further questions about his or her private religious views with respect to their bearing on matters of public policy:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

And

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

The whole speech deserves to be read or watched in full.

But, unfortunately, in contemporary times hardly any candidates for public office, whether left or right, will so categorically insist on an absolutely secular approach to government. So as a result it is our civic duty to ask important questions about their views on various specific points about the relationship between their faith and their potential governance.

2. Even a candidate’s Constitutionally permissible goals for aiding faith in the private struggle against non-faith can be interrogated for their wisdom.

While I wholeheartedly am convinced that the writers of our Constitution would approve of the wall of separation interpretation of the Establishment Clause, it is worth stressing that even had our founders thought the government could take it upon itself to promote faith in general over non-faith in general, we as a free society still should not. We can think for ourselves. (And, related to this, I would love it if any readers who think that there should not be an absolute separation of church and state would read and respond to this post: Questions For Those Who Oppose The Wall of Separation Between Church and State.) The Constitution imposes many limits on possible legislation but it does not require many specific kinds of laws. Even to the extent that it is currently, or rationally could be, considered Constitutionally permissible for the government to give special advantages or recognition to faith (or to specific faiths), we do not need to think such advantages or recognitions are a good idea.

We can demand that those who want to impose pro-faith governmental decrees, traditions, expenditures, etc. justify on rational grounds why what they are doing is actually in the public good and not just in the interest of those who have a stake in the promulgation of faith. We should have a frank and vigorous debate about whether faith really is so good at all before we promote its flourishing through any possible Constitutional means that might be available to do so.

So we should explicitly ask candidates not only what they think are Constitutionally permissible means of promoting faith (or their own faith) in the public square or through public resources, but ask them which means they think are justifiable according to the traditionally supreme secular American political values and considerations about the public good.

3. When politicians insist that America must be grounded in religious values, those politicians’ own religious values must be queried since they are explicitly threatening to base policy decisions on them.

When a politician tells us that his governing philosophy is rooted in his faith beliefs, then we must demand rigorous explanations of what those faith beliefs are, what the values derived from them are, and whether or in what ways the candidate would place them above traditionally supreme secular American political values like the separation of church and state, egalitarianism, individual autonomy, freedom of speech and expression, the right to privacy, rights of due process, separation of powers, the right to the pursuit of happiness, equal protection, freedom of conscience, protection of vulnerable minorities from the tyranny of the majority, etc. Throughout the rest of this article I will have in mind these and related values whenever I write of “traditionally supreme secular American political values”.

4. If a candidate’s religiously influenced values do not alter or add to the traditionally supreme secular American political values that we all should share, then he should simply omit references to the role of religion in forming his values since these are confusing and irrelevant.

If all a candidate wants to stress in discussing his faith are the ways he thinks that his faith supports the traditionally supreme secular American political values by which alone we should be governed, then that is fine. But then the candidate should admit that the only difference between him and a secularist is the manner in which he formulates an abstract derivation of his values. But if there is no actual difference in substantive values that makes his values distinctively religious in character, then it is only potentially confusing for the candidate to raise his religion at all. One can clearly come to those same values through different means, as attested by the existence of atheists and people of a wide range of faiths who all hold values in common.

So, in that case, all of a candidate’s references to how his religion contributes to his values is somewhat superfluous. They are only a biographical matter, not a prescription for the public good or for how to determine public policy, and so the candidate should probably stop referring to them in ways that imply either that faith in general or his own faith in particular faith is required to discover, or to properly formulate, the traditionally supreme secular American political values.

5. If a candidate thinks that we should only interpret the meaning of the traditionally supreme secular American political values in ways that are determined by her faith’s idiosyncratic hermeneutics and religiously distinctive values, then she must make this clear and voters should hold this against her.

The traditionally supreme secular American political values are famously subject to a great deal of interpretation. It is theoretically possible to interpret them in ways that say that the only right way to understand and instantiate them is in a way that gives special privileges either to faith in general or to the beliefs and dictates of a specific faith. I think such interpretations of the traditionally supreme secular American political values in many cases will lead to positively Orwellian changes of their basic meaning. To interpret the traditionally supreme secular American political values in ways that make them subordinated instruments that function in the service of faith or a particular faith is to betray them. A politician who admits a willingness to do such a thing should not elected unless his opponent threatens to undermine our core values in even worse ways. 

6. If a candidate thinks that values distinct to her specific faith or to people of faith in general should have the moral or legal authority either to limit the traditionally supreme secular American values or to trump their importance then he must make this clear and voters should hold this against him.  

If a candidate says that the political importance of her faith-based values (or of general faith-based values) is that they conflict with and are superior to, limit, or otherwise should trump the traditionally supreme secular American political values—then he or she must be forced by a vigorous press to reveal that and voters should hold this as a strongly negative mark against her candidacy.

7. If a candidate thinks that faith-based values that are clearly distinct and different from our traditionally supreme secular American political values are necessary to proper governance and important to enshrine in law, then this position must be revealed and interrogated.

If a candidate claims that the traditionally supreme American political values are dependent on or in need of supplement by the explicit inculcation of her religion, religion in general, or distinctively religious values–then she must seriously be interrogated as to whether she thinks it is within a public official’s rights or responsibilities to use her governing powers to teach those more distinctly religious values.

Will she see it as the government’s role to promote faith itself as a good to be more widely appreciated by the general populace? Will she see it as her role to inculcate her own religion’s teachings using governmental power? Will she allow the government to favor some faiths over others or the faithful over non-believers? Will she see it as either her prerogative or obligation to encourage educational standards which actively promote faith (whether sectarian or not) as a vital part of being an American? Will she seek ways to subsidize faith through whatever backdoor means she can devise (from supporting proselytizing faith-based charities, allowing tax breaks for explicitly political churches, diverting funds from public education into parochial schools, etc.) If she will do any of this, then he or she must be explicit about what his or her intentions are and people should hold these against her.

8. If a candidate thinks that distinctively religious beliefs provide her with truths about science, history, or philosophy that will be relevant to her governance, then we must ask her whether or in what ways she would defer to the distinctively faith-based advice of religious clergy, religious texts, theologically prejudiced pseudoscientists, or other sources of theologically derived beliefs and values when making public policy decisions.

Will she be taking counsel from religious leaders, like Bart Stupak did when he let Catholic bishops’ faith-based prejudices have an incredible, unwarranted influence on health care legislation? Will the candidate allow faith-beliefs about science to influence judgments of fact like Congressman John Shimkus, then a candidate to chair the energy and commerce committee, did when he asserted that we do not have to worry about combating climate change since God promised Noah he would never flood the earth again? Will the candidate trust the scientific advice of discredited pseudo-scientific creationists, global warming skeptics, and other theologically prejudiced “scientists” over all of the most credible scientific authorities in the country when determining how research funds will be allocated or when making crucial determinations about facts related to policy decisions?

Religiously explicit political candidates cannot have it both ways. They cannot promise an elevated influence of religious faith on public life and not have the nature and meaning of their religious beliefs go unexamined. They cannot say that the most important source of values and beliefs they have is their faith and then dismiss inquiries into the contents of their faith as irrelevant personal trivialities. They cannot verbally marginalize secular people by insisting that faith be actively promoted in the public square and then cry invasion of privacy when their actual beliefs, which they are actually promising to be brought into the public square, are scrutinized.

They cannot say they believe something as the foundation of their lives, of the country, and of the best governing philosophy, and then get outraged when critics ask them to defend publicly the blatantly ignorant, superstitious, magical, mythical, regressive, or otherwise embarrassingly false and outdated contents of their religious beliefs. Beliefs can have consequences–especially when fundamentalist literalists possess them.  Politicians who mingle with preachers who think that Israel’s defense is important because of apocryphal end times predictions must be explicit: do they believe these theological interpretations and if so how exactly will it affect their policies, and why?  Do they not believe these theological interpretations at all?  If they do believe these theological interpretations, but will not allow them to affect their policies, then why not?

Such questions might make them uncomfortable since politicians, like many people of faith, like to comfortably have cognitive dissonance whereby they believe one thing in church and another thing outside of it.  It might embarrass them to have to take an explicit, actual position on an either/or reality which involves siding decisively against their preachers. But that’s tough luck. If they are the ones that refuse to make unequivocal statements about the absolute separation of church and state like Kennedy made (i.e., that faith, preachers, and religious institutions have no place in secular governance) then they are not entitled to their cognitive dissonance. The incoherency and contradictions in their beliefs must be publicly scrutinized. Then they must be forced to make clear which views of reality they intend to actually endorse and govern within.

9. Candidates who insist that religious values are integral to a good culture should be asked to explain what they mean by this and be challenged on the rightness of their claims since they informally influence the culture through such claims, even when they do not actually wind up legislating in ways that specially privilege faith over lack of faith. 

Even beyond their legislative agenda, politicians who flout their faith as a credential for rulership and who insist that America self-consciously conceive of itself as a religious (or more specifically Christian or “Judeo-Christian”) nation need to have their anti-secularist views of American culture challenged. As political leaders, their public declarations are influential and so they must be interrogated for their coherence and their truth. If they do not want to have a debate about the foundations or justifications of private values then they should stop campaigning for a set of private values and stick to campaigning for only for public office and publicly defensible values.

10. Sometimes erring on the side of tradition, even faith-based tradition, is permissible, as long as it is within understood boundaries.

Sometimes we have difficult value judgments to make that even the best philosophical reasoning cannot resolve decisively in favor one way or the other.  In those cases where we have been open to all manner of evidence and yet are still uncertain, it is permissible (but not necessary) to err on the side of traditions, even religious ones, where there is no preponderance of evidence for either side.  This is not to say that all values debates can only be settled by faith or that regularly values debates should be settled by faith. Values are not mysterious dogmatic posits or edicts from divine beings.  We can rationally investigate them, challenge them, and defend them. Religion has no proper magisterium over them. And religion certainly should not be treated as the general arbiter of political values or of choices for public policy.

But in cases where value judgments are really close and hard to make, and where either position admits of numerous secular arguments in its favor, it is permissible to me that as long as one is going to have to go with one’s gut anyway, that one have the right to opt on the side of what a trusted tradition advises.  Whether faith-based religious traditions deserve such trust is another matter, of course, but the legislator who in all other respects dutifully segregates her faith from her public power is entitled to make this judgment call by her own conscience.

For more of my thoughts on political philosophy, I recommend the following posts:

American Values vs. Fundamentalist Values

Questions For Those Who Oppose The Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Bullying or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech?

The Religious Conservative’s False Choice: “Big Brother” Or “Heavenly Father”

Thoughts On The Ethics Of Private Vs. Publicly-Mediated Generostiy

How Christian Beliefs And Values Are No More Creditable With America’s Founding Than Islamic Ones

On the Conflict over the Meaning and Cultural Influence of Political Secularism

Why Clergy Rightfully Have No Place At A 9/11 Memorial (Or Any Civic Ceremonies)

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Ariel

    Just a few very quick remarks.

    1. Private religious views should be irrelevant to public service because a public servant should keep her private religious views out of her decisions for the public.

    If this means that the public servant’s decisions shouldn’t be motivated by private religious beliefs, I don’t think one should expect this. (Motivation is a tricky business.) But I guess that it’s probably taken here in some looser sense.

    3. When politicians insist that America must be grounded in religious values, those politicians’ own religious values must be queried since they are explicitly threatening to base policy decisions on them.

    I agree, I would add only that I see nothing special in religious values here. I would say rather that if the politicians insist that a given country must be grounded in some sort of values (religious, secular, humanist, liberal, fascist, communist … pick your choice), then these values should indeed be queried.

    4. If a candidate’s religiously influenced values do not alter or add to the traditionally supreme secular American political values that we all should share, then he should simply omit references to the role of religion in forming his values since these are confusing and irrelevant.

    Vacuously true: an implication with a false antecedent :-) You seem to treat here “the traditionally supreme secular American political values” as an algorithm for settling (almost) every issue. My suspicion is that they leave in fact plenty of room for maneuver, with the empty spaces being filled in by what you bring with you. Apart from that, there are also issues like: what areas will be important for a given politician? What sort of collaborators is he going to recruit? What sort of electorate is he going to rely on? Whose interests will he primarily represent? For such things the background matters, the religious background in particular. (It wouldn’t matter perhaps in a society of robots, governed by robots – I will grant you that much.)

    Admittedly, you take some care of this in your next point 5, but you consider only an extreme (“Orwellian”) version. It’s not enough to validate your point 4 (that is, in any other way than vacuous).

    Cheers

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I agree, I would add only that I see nothing special in religious values here. I would say rather that if the politicians insist that a given country must be grounded in some sort of values (religious, secular, humanist, liberal, fascist, communist … pick your choice), then these values should indeed be queried.

      That’s fine. Any values that will play a role in governance are open to vigorous interrogation.


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