“The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? …. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism.'”
Few statements so clearly draw attention to the current misuse of religion in American politics as this one. It could easily have been uttered by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, reacting to movements by conservative Christian politicians to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. Or it could have been spoken by Sen. John Kerry, reacting to Cardinal Francis Arinze’s suggestion that he be denied communion because of his views on abortion. However, this statement was not made on the 2004 campaign trail; it was made on another presidential campaign – that of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Goldwater recognized a core problem with how religious belief was then being injected into public policy, a problem that has only grown in the forty years since. That problem is the misuse of religious belief as a goad – an uncompromising prod dictating what actions public officials should take based on religious teachings. Criticizing attempts by religious leaders to tell citizens and lawmakers what they “must believe,” and to “force government leaders into following their position,” Goldwater was speaking out not against the expression of religious belief to public officials, but against the imposition of religious belief on those officials.
Many political leaders, especially many progressive political leaders, show distaste for expressions of faith, declaring that faith has no place in the public sphere. Given our Founders’ poor experience with publicly sanctioned religion, and given the several narrow-minded, religious-inspired political initiatives making headlines lately, this distaste is wholly understandable. Their distaste ought not to be for expressions of faith in the public sphere, though, but for their misuse as directives for policy action.
Expressions of faith in politics simply cannot be constructive if offered as goads. Sadly, many of the current conservative approaches to faith work in this way, misusing faith to push leaders toward a particular political platform and a particular public policy prescription. It would not be too strong to say that these approaches use faith in a theocratic way – organizing the state and its chief actors to be governed by the direction of (a conservative version of) God.
This approach is not only unconstructive, but dangerous. When effective, it sends a message to our citizens and to our brothers and sisters in other countries that, yes, our leaders are driven by dogma, a dogma often at direct odds with their community’s beliefs. I need not dwell on the problems this perception has caused in American efforts to achieve peace in Iraq, where the Judeo-Christian traditions that pervade much of the United States are anything but dominant.
Expressions of faith in politics can, however, be constructive if offered as guides. In this approach, public expressions of faith are treated as meaningful voices to consider when weighing public policy options. They do not command leaders to follow a certain religious dictum and make a resultant policy choice, but rather give leaders another set of perspectives from their constituents to inform their eventual free choice. This approach uses faith in a democratic way – enabling the custodians of the state to govern with a fuller knowledge and respect for the varied, and often religious, voices of the people they represent.
This approach is especially constructive in contexts where faith already dominates the public sphere. In Iraq, for example, American attempts to help shape local self-rule are empty if they neglect the central role faith plays in informing many Iraqi policy decisions. Other examples are found closer to home, like with government support for community-based poverty relief. In many struggling neighborhoods, where the only effective support networks may emanate from communities of faith, policymakers perform a disservice when, in an attempt to avoid appearing religious, they legislate in a way that effectively prevents these networks from receiving Constitutionally permissible support. We must remember that public leaders’ support of the work of communities of faith is not necessarily the same as public endorsement of a particular faith.
Furthermore, there is no harm in principle in allowing our secular public institutions to work in parallel or in tandem with religious organizations when the interests of both converge. For instance, the fact that many religious institutions see widespread poverty as a moral crisis ought not to prevent policymakers from addressing it as well, for fear of being branded religious. Imagine if public leaders in the 1960s had shied away from legislating civil rights protections for fear that doing so would associate them too closely with the work of church leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.? History shows us that secular and religious institutions can complement each other’s efforts in valuable ways without the former becoming the agent of the latter.
Thomas Jefferson reminds us, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” By allowing religious expression in the public sphere, we are not necessarily allowing ourselves to be ruled by it. Our political leaders have the liberty to let it inform their choices, but not force their hand. If they choose a course of action that runs counter to a particular religious cause, it is consistent with the religious understanding, shared by many, that God endowed them with free will to do so. Furthermore, if, in a society in which faith is allowed a voice in politics, a leader chooses a course of action sympathetic to a religious cause, it need not imply that the choice was made on religious grounds, but simply that it took religious views – and no doubt many other views – into consideration.
This is not theocratic, but democratic and progressive. It allows religious voices to be included in the public sphere insofar as they enrich and advance representative policy, and does so without imposing religion on public officials. No doubt this is the approach our Founders sought when they penned the First Amendment. The first clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” tells us that government should not allow religion to dominate. The second clause, “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” tells us that it should not allow religion to be silenced either. Yes, the institutions of church and state must be kept apart, but that does not preclude the church’s vibrant participation in the discourse of the state.
A progressive approach to faith in politics emerges from this understanding – an approach that sees faith not as a source of narrow dogma, but as one of many important contributors to the pluralistic, discursive fabric of representative democracy. Conservatives’ misuse of faith as a goad pushes them to advocate and implement unrepresentative policy choices. Let us as progressives not abandon expressions of faith, but treat them as a guide in politics – one of many, and one that enables more fully informed, and more fully representative, policymaking.
Stephen Ruckman is Co-Chair of the Faith in Politics initiative of 2020 Democrats, and a joint degree candidate at Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School, where he is pursuing a J.D. and an M.A.R. in Ethics.
The above is the first in a series of columns. Although not necessarily the opinions of the Center, the authors in this series will present their thoughts on the intersection between faith and progressive policy and politics.
Your reactions are welcome. Send them to Nathan Wilson, coordinator of 2020 Democrats’ Faith in Politics project, at email@example.com.
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