Fixing the Relationship between Faith and Politics

Fixing the Relationship between Faith and Politics October 9, 2012

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?

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