9 Vital Points About The Public Relevance of Political Candidates' Religious Beliefs

9 Vital Points About The Public Relevance of Political Candidates' Religious Beliefs September 1, 2011

Last week, Bill Keller had a good piece in the New York Times in which he discussed the importance of “asking tougher questions about faith” to the presidential candidates and then offered to each of the current Republican candidates for president a set of specific questions, tailored uniquely to each candidate, about their faiths and their potential impacts on policy.   This has caused outraged responses from various conservatives that Keller would not have done this to Obama and treated Reverend Wright’s remarks as legitimate marks against him, that Keller does not understand religion, that Keller just wants to make the candidates’ religious beliefs sound crazy even though they are shared by a great number of people (and, therefore, somehow are not crazy for being widely believed), etc., etc.

In what follows I want to point out 9 key things to remember about why it is legitimate to interrogate any candidate’s beliefs and intricate views of the proper relationship between church and state if that candidate does not give a John F. Kennedy style robust unequivocal denunciation of explicitly faith-based control over politics.

1. Private religious views should ideally be irrelevant to public service but it is up to a politician to demonstrate he or she understands this before we assume they are actually irrelevant to judging him or her.

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 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:

 it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

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.


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.


I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition, to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress, on my declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself)— instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948, which strongly endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic.

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

But, unfortunately, in contemporary times, hardly anyone candidates for public office, whether left or right will so categorically insist on an absolutely secular approach to government.

2. When politicians insist that America must be grounded in religious values, those politicians’ religious values must be queried since they are warning us that they will be basing policy decisions on those values.

Because of our government’s neutrality in matters of belief or unbelief that are irrelevant to public policy decisions, people’s distinctively religious values that have no bearing on their legislative, executive, or judicial responsibilities should be treated as irrelevant.  But when a politician tells us that his or her governing philosophy is rooted in his or her faith beliefs, then we must demand serious, rigorous explanations of what those faith beliefs are, what the values derived from them are, and whether the candidate would place them above supreme American political values like egalitarianism, freedom of speech, right to privacy, rights of due process, separation of church and state, rights of conscience, protection of vulnerable minorities, equal protection, etc.

3. If a candidate’s religiously influenced values do not alter or add to the traditional American values we all share, then a candidate should simply omit reference to the role of religion in forming his or her values as confusing and irrelevant.

If all the candidate means is that, in his or her own mind, these various American values are supported by his or her religious values, then that is fine. But then the candidate should admit that the only difference between him or her and a secularist is the manner in which he or she formulates an abstract derivation of values.  But there is no actual difference in substantive values that makes his or her values distinctively religious.  And one clearly can come to those same values through different means (as the widespread existence of liberal atheists and agnostics and people of minority faiths attests).  So, in that case, all his or her appeals to religious formation of values is somewhat superfluous. They are only a biographical matter, not a necessary prescription for the public good, and the candidate should probably stop referring to them in ways that imply faith (or his or her own faith) was required either to discover or properly formulate his or her distinctly American political values.

4. If a candidate thinks that only with religious values can one rightly interpret American values or that religious values can limit or trump the influence of our common American values, then the candidate must make this clear.  

 If the candidate means to say that the political importance of his or her faith-based values (or of general faith-based values) is that they conflict with and are superior to, limit, or trump supreme American political values—then he or she must be forced by a vigorous press to reveal that.

5. If a candidate thinks that faith-based values which are clearly distinguishable from our common American values are necessary to proper governance and important to enshrine in law, this position must be revealed and interrogated.

If a candidate claims that the supreme American political values are dependent on the inculcation of his or her religion, or on the presence of faith in general or on the presence of other religious-specific values—then he or she must seriously be interrogated as to whether he or she thinks it is within his or her rights or responsibilities to use his or her governing powers to teach those more distinctly religious values.

Will he or she see it as the government’s role to promote faith over doubt in the general populace, rather than to be neutral and let private individuals and institutions determine the worth or lackthereof of faiths for themselves without government favoritism? Will her or 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?  If he or she will do any of this, then he or she must be explicit about what his or her intentions are.

6. If a candidate thinks that religious values are vital to just governance and religious beliefs are true guides to reality, then it is necessary to ask specifically whether or in what ways the candidate would seek out, and defer to, the distinctively faith-based advice of religious clergy, theologically prejudiced pseudoscientists, or other sources of theologically derived beliefs.

Will he or she be taking counsel from religious leaders like Bart Stupak did when he let Catholic bishops have an incredible influence on health care legislation from faith-based inputs? Will the candidate allow theological matters of faith 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 candidates’ trust the scientific advice of discredited pseudo-scientific creationists and other theologically oriented scientists over all the most credible scientific institutions in the country?

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 faith which they actually are promising to be brought into the public square is 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 stupid, superstitious, magical, mythical, 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 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 why not?  This 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 actual position on reality that sides against their preachers but that’s tough luck if they are the ones that refuse to make unequivocal statements of Kennedy’s kind that faith, preachers, and religious institutions have no place in secular governance.

7. 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 if they do not legislate in a way that specially privileges faith over lack of faith. 

And 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 even if they do not formally intend to push legislation that favors faith over non-faith or their own sect over others. As political leaders, they informally are influences and that influence must be interrogated. If they do not want to have a debate about the foundations or justifications of values then they should stop campaigning for a set of values.

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

And finally, 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 they 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. The Constitution imposes limits on possible legislation but it does not require many kinds. Even to the extent that it is currently considered Constitutionally permissible for the government to give special advantages or recognition to faith (or specific faiths), we do not need to think that those are good. 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.

9. 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.  Not all values debates are faith-debates. Values are not mysterious dogmatic posits or edicts from divine beings.  We can rationally investigate them and religion has no proper magisterium over them. And religion certainly should not be treated as the arbiter of political values and choices for public policy.  But in cases where value judgments are really close and hard to make, it is permissible to me that as long as one is going to have to flip a coin or go with one’s gut 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 his or her faith from his or her public power is entitled to make this judgment call by his or her own conscience.

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

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 … – Camels With Hammers

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