Fixing the Relationship between Faith and Politics

What’s wrong–and what’s right–with the role of faith in American politics today? This is a big and complex question, and this post is simply an attempt to offer some thoughts. In it I will address two things that I see wrong with the role of faith in American politics today and two critical areas I believe may help improve the relationship between faith and politics. Feel free to share yours as well or to seek to extend what I’ve written here.

Problem #1: The necessity of paying lip service

Today, it’s almost impossible to have a fair shot at winning political office without acknowledging God. I mean my goodness, think of the hoopla when the Democratic party platform included the word “faith,” but not the word “God”! I’ve even heard Obama criticized for not mentioning God in the first presidential debate. If you don’t mention faith in the public square, if you don’t make sure to give some acknowledgement of God in practically every speech, you are looking for political disaster. (This is ironic given that many in the Christian Right state over and over that faith has been banished from the public square.)

“If you had to choose, would you vote for a conservative atheist or a liberal Christian?” This question went around the atheist blogosphere last week, and for me (and many others) the answer was laughably easy: the liberal Christian. I think that underscores the point that what we should care about when looking at political candidates is not their religious beliefs but rather their political positions. I really don’t care that Nancy Pelosi is Catholic. What I care about is her political platform, which I find essentially identical to my own political positions.

Now, the fact that the evangelicals of the Christian Right are lining up behind Romney, a Mormon, might indicate that this is, indeed, already the case – that they care more about Romney’s political positions than his religious beliefs. However, what appears to me to be happening is not a divide between whether someone’s religious beliefs are Christian or Mormon or what have you, but simply a requirement that whatever your beliefs you must be very vocally politically religious, or your political career may end faster than you might like.

Today, candidates of either party must pay lip service to God and to religion. This was not always so. Perhaps the real irony is that this lip service need not be accompanied by a genuine showing of, say, virtues like compassion or charity. Those things don’t matter. All that is needed is the lip service.

Problem #2: The fusion of religion and morality

The ancient Greeks saw religion and morality as separate things. They worshiped the gods because the gods demanded worship, and refrained from gluttony or from stealing for reasons entirely separate from the existence of the Gods. Rather than relying on religion for their morality, they developed complex ethical systems to help them deal with issues of morality. I wish I’d known this as a child, because it would have saved me from a lot of confusion regarding how in the world the Greeks could worship gods who seemed so capricious and imperfect, not at all very good models of morality.

Christianity, though, fuses religion and morality. So do other religions like Islam. Thus for many religious believers today, morality flows from religion. There are several ways this happens, one common one being the divine command theory: Stealing is wrong because God said it was wrong. Adultery is wrong because God said it was wrong. And sure, God had reasons for saying those things were wrong, but at the most basic levels those things are wrong because God said so, not because of some sort of ethical framework. Other religious believers do have ethical systems on which they base morality, but many nevertheless see those ethical systems as flowing from their belief in God, rather than being something potentially independent from religion entirely.

What does this have to do with politics? Well, I grew up being taught that every law passed is legislating morality, and is therefore legislating someone’s religion. And if you see morals or even ethical systems as something that must flow from religious beliefs, well, you can see how someone might think that. This is why so many Christians think atheists are unethical and incapable of being moral or having moral standards. I remember as a child in an evangelical family being told that it didn’t make sense for atheists or secularists to make murder illegal. After all, I was told, without God everyone simply does whatever they want, murdering, stealing, and cheating. In other words, they saw the fact that murder was illegal as the result of the fact that our nation was, they believed, founded on Christianity. I had no idea that murder might be wrong based on ethical systems completely independent of religion.

I would also argue that this assumption that all morality, and thus every law, must naturally flow from religion underlies much of the nation’s political culture wars. After all, if everyone is at the most basic level legislating their religion, well, it’s easy to see government as a religious battleground of us versus them. If everyone could take a step back and realize that morals do not have to be tied to religion, and that for many morals are actually tied to ethical systems rather than religious beliefs, I think things might improve. I think that many individuals of different religious traditions might also find that for all their differences they share common ethical systems.

Solution #1: Supporting the separation of church and state

The separation of church and state is one of the best things the founders did for our country, and yet, there are some in this country who think the separation of church and state is both a fiction and a tool of Satan. This is interesting, because it was their very forerunners, the fundamentalists of the founders’ day, who were most in favor of the separation of church and state. After all, the entire reason we ended up with separation of church and state in this country was that no one Christian denomination wanted some other Christian denomination’s views made official. But now that denominations have become less important than the liberal/conservative split, and now that the conservative religious types are drowning out the liberal religious ones, well, suddenly keeping church and state separate seems less important.

I don’t think those in the Christian Right realize what kind of path they are starting down when they attempt to legislate their religious beliefs. Let’s imagine that Hindus started to try to legislate theirs. Well, they might very well be in favor of banning the killing of cows. It’s their religion, after all! Similarly, Muslims believe that drinking alcohol is something prohibited by Allah, so they might try to ban that. As soon as we start lowering the separation of church and state, we start down this path. Every religion has different and sometimes contradictory requirements. For example, while some conservative evangelical Protestants argue that abortion even performed to save the life of the mother is wrong because it still constitutes active and intentional murder, most Jews believe that Judaism teaches that in that case the only moral option is to perform an abortion to save the mother’s life. If we’re going to legislate religious beliefs, we have to figure out whose we’re legislating.

Maintaining the separation of church and state means not accepting religious arguments for banning gay marriage or abortion. If someone’s religion forbids gay marriage or abortion, that person should not marry someone of the same sex and not have an abortion. Seeking to ban each is attempting to force others to abide by their religious beliefs. If those in the Christian Right want to ban abortion or gay marriage, they need to have secular reasons, or else we start down the path I mention in the above paragraph. On some level, those in the Christian Right know this. This is why they argue that since a embryo has its own DNA it’s clearly a person who should be granted rights. This is why they argue against marriage equality by twisting studies in an attempt to prove that having gay parents is harmful to a child’s development.

As a teen, I would have responded to this reasoning by saying “what, are religious individuals just supposed to leave their religion at the door of the statehouse?” In other words, just what is the role of religion in politics? My answer is this: acting from your religious convictions is fine, but trying to force others to abide by your religious beliefs is not.

Solution #2: Taking back the rhetoric

If I were still religious, I would by mortified by the fact that the loudest religious voices, the loudest pastors and theologians today, have made the discussion center around opposing marriage equality and curtailing women’s reproductive rights rather than around things like helping the poor, welcoming immigrants, and caring for the sick. As it is, I’m appalled by the fact that those who claim to have a monopoly on morality, who claim that I am incapable of being moral, appear to me to have some of the worst morals out there.

We need to turn the tables on them. We need to call them out for how they talk about the poor. We need to call them out for how they treat LGBTQ individuals. We need to call them out for claiming to be “pro-family” while opposing things like paid maternity leave. We need to call them out for how they talk about immigrants. We need to take back the rhetoric. We need to reclaim words like compassion and justice.

Dorothea Dix, prison reformer

I’ve been attending my local Unitarian Universalist church these last few weeks, and one thing that has struck me is the way people of so many different religious traditions and backgrounds come together around their shared commitment to social justice. I think there is real promise in this. I am an atheist, but if we are going to make headway opposing the rhetoric and policies of the Christian Right, we atheists can’t do it alone. Stuck in between the revival meetings and anti-evolution campaigns, this country has a rich tradition of liberal religion and progressive commitment to social justice. What I don’t understand is how conservatives have for so long been allowed to run off with the rhetoric, claiming to be morally and ethically superior. We progressives with a shared commitment to social justice need to stand up and take back the rhetoric.


When it comes to the relationship between religion and politics today, we have some real problems. The mandate that politicians pay lip service to religion clouds a focus on actual issues, and the idea that morality flows from religion has helped fuel an atmosphere of contention and misunderstanding. But there is also hope. While the first is under attack and the second is overshadowed, our nation does have a tradition of the separation of church and state and of liberal religion and progressive commitment to social justice. In other words, those of us who oppose the Christian Right’s attempts to legislate religion are not without tools, or precedent.

How about you? How would you answer the question about what is right, and wrong, with the role of faith in American politics today?

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conservations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Jayn

    To put it simply, the problem is that faith has any role in politics, beyond how it informs the opinions of any particular individual. You broke down the reasons why legislating based on theology is bad in our country pretty well. If we really were a Christian country of the type some people claim we are, then we wouldn’t be having these arguments over policy anyways, because people would generally be in accord. I thought we had a government ‘of the people, for the people’, not ‘of the people of God, for His glory’. If ‘the people’ choose not to follow God, it’s not the government’s place to force them to.

    I do tend to see the current power struggles between (some) Christians and the rest of us as unavoidable. Between the premise that there’s a single ‘right’ interpretation of biblical texts–and cripes, not all Christians even agree on what ones are and aren’t biblical–and the duty to ‘spread the Good News’…well, you get what we’re talking about right here. I’m not sure how to solve it (especially when you throw in a 2000-year-old persecution complex).

  • picklefactory

    Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conservations on life’s most important questions.

    compelling conservations



  • ButchKitties

    Regarding the separation of church and state, my horse trainer had a saying I find applicable: “Mixing chocolate into shit won’t make the shit more palatable, but it sure ruins the chocolate.”

    Every time a religious institution has gained direct access to political power, the result has been not the improvement of politics, but the corruption of the religion. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  • Sarah

    This addresses a topic that has fascinated me / boggled my mind for a long time. To me as an outsider it seems weird that a nation which puts so much emphasis on the separation of church and state should also be one where God is so omnipresent in conversations and public discourse.

    Where I live, there isn’t such a strict separation (at least not in theory) what with religious education being one of the standard classes taught at school (though parents can pull their kids out of these classes and from the age of 14 students can decide for themselves whether to attend or not). Nevertheless, religion is a very private topic for most people and ‘God” is just not mentioned in public very often, least of all by politicians.

    • alfaretta

      The ultra-religious don’t believe in separation of church and state. In fact, during the election of 1960 JFK gave a famous speech on the subject to reassure the majority who were suspicious that he’d be taking his orders from the Pope rather than the American people. Candidate Rick Santorum said this year that that speech made him “throw up.”

  • Bix

    I just re-read the Kennedy speech, and it’s more substantive than anything I’ve heard during this campaign, on any topic.

    I think Santorum willfully misinterpreted Kennedy’s speech for his own ends. Kennedy was defending the Constitutional separation of church and state, not saying that people who hold religious beliefs can’t participate in government. Santorum said he doesn’t believe in the full separation of church and state. Which church? Kennedy points out that different groups get oppressed in turn, and tomorrow it might be you. We have a secular government as a safeguard against religious oppression and war. This means, very clearly, that one religious group cannot impose its will through legislation.

    The irony is that the same people who would break down the protections of the First Amendment complain so rigorously about other perceived infringements upon the Constitution.

  • perfectnumber628

    “My answer is this: acting from your religious convictions is fine, but trying to force others to abide by your religious beliefs is not.” Well-said.

  • AztecQueen2000

    Just imagine if our country were run by fundamentalists who believed in the entire Old Testament:
    1. All business and government agencies would have to close on Saturday. No banking or mail delivery would be permitted.
    2. The sale of all pork products, cheeseburgers, and shellfish would be outlawed. Restaurants that specialized in hamburgers, ribs, or other meats would not be allowed to sell milkshakes, ice cream, or other dairy products.
    3. September-October would experience a total shutdown due to the Biblical holidays.
    4. The sale of breads and grain products would be banned for one week every spring.
    5. Rebellious children could be executed by their parents.
    6. Rapists would be forced to marry their victims.
    7. Everyone would have to keep a statement of faith on their front doors.

    • smrnda

      6. Should read “rape victims will be forced to marry their rapists” I mean, I doubt many rapists would consider it a big deal.

  • Sheena

    Religious beliefs (or lack thereof) should only be mentioned in politics as information for the legislated. For example, “Congressperson A is Southern Baptist and consistently votes against abortion, Congressperson B is Episcopalian and consistently votes in favor of gender and marriage equality, Congressperson C is an atheist and consistently votes in favor of fair market economics” is much more useful than “Congressperson A is a good Christian family wo/man and conservative, Congressperson B says s/he’s a Christian but can’t be because s/he’s a liberal, and Congressperson C is an ATHEIST and can’t be trusted”.
    Of course, that ties into the idea that religious beliefs inherently influence one’s morality, which is false. But it can be a lot easier to skim a list of candidates and see that Congressperson A is Southern Baptist and conservative, assume that means that Congressperson A shares one’s values and beliefs, and go for it — regardless of what Congressperson A actually believes, says, or votes for/against. It’s just as easy to skim that list and think “well, Congressperson C SAYS they’re a moderate, but if s/he’s an atheist that means s/he wants to take away my religious freedom” and neglect to research beyond that — and vote against someone who could influence positive results because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
    All that to say, religious beliefs should have minimal influence on voters’ decisions, but those beliefs are often the deciding factor. And it amazes me that this is the presidential election with the most information available to voters (regarding candidates, their beliefs, their records, etc) and so many will STILL choose a candidate based on religious beliefs or political party in general without really thinking about everything else.

  • kagerato

    “My answer is this: acting from your religious convictions is fine, but trying to force others to abide by your religious beliefs is not.”

    Who decides what “acting from religious conviction” means? Does that provide for ownership of slaves? Stoning adulterers? Forcing women into burqas? Conquest and genocide for God?

    Religious conviction is not a justification for any behavior. Indeed, conviction in general is not any kind of guide to behavior. It is often those most convinced of their righteousness who commit the most horrifying crimes.

    • Attackfish

      Religious conviction must be in any free republic the same as any other conviction. I am convicted of many things in an entirely secular sense that I believe are right and moral, and may well not be. I doubt it, but then, they are my convictions. If we have the vote, free of coercion, we must allow people to vote their convictions no matter how wrong or even evil we feel their convictions to be, or from whatever source those convictions spring.

      • kagerato

        This completely misses my point. The implied conclusion was not that we should seek to eliminate people’s convictions, by force or otherwise. It was that people who’s only excuse for their views is conviction, faith, authority, and so forth are almost certainly wrong.

      • Attackfish

        Most of the people I’ve met who believe the more wicked aspects of religions are right and a good thing have other sociological and psychological reasons for their beliefs that they are either not conscious of or are unwilling to admit to. My area of study is Political Science and Sociology, with a focus on the Middle east, so I spent a lot of my college career studying the sociological reasons for terrorism and assorted other things we Westerners often see as the evils of Islam, so I have some experience in this arena. It’s more that when we don’t admit to the reasons for our convictions, we are more likely to be wrong. Unfortunately, we can’t force anyone else to engage in intellectual honesty.

        It works both ways too. I’ve also met plenty of people as a volunteer who believed their conviction hat helping people in need came from their faith. I think it came from an innate compassion, but the only conscious justification they had for their conviction was religion. So being less than entirely self aware doesn’t always lead to the wrong convictions anyway.

        In other words, no one ever has religious faith as their sole reason for a conviction. They just think they do.

    • Rosie

      In the US, there is precedent for human rights taking precedence over religious conviction. We don’t allow the Mormons to marry underage girls, for example, though their religion might allow or even encourage it. We don’t allow anybody to commit “honor killings”, and if they try, they end up on trial for homicide. I’m pretty sure those parents who beat their adopted daughter to death in following the Pearl’s advice are going to end up in jail for some time, and have all their other children (both adopted and born to them) removed from their care (though I haven’t been keeping up with the story). In other words, the right of anybody to act on their religious convictions ends at forcing anybody else to obey them, which precludes slavery and the other nasty things mentioned above. Religiously privileged folks sometimes fight this, but on the whole I think we’re moving in the right direction.

  • Adele

    I am glad to hear you are attending your local UU church and seem to be having a positive experience. :-)