Does Religion Deserve a Role in Politics?

In a column published on August 25th Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, took issue with the religious beliefs of the Republican presidential candidates. He began by comparing belief in Christianity with belief in aliens – not the best of starts. He then goes on to question every one of the candidates’ religious associations under the assumption these influences will define their years in office. He wants to know if Rick Perry wants a government “firmly rooted in biblical principles” and for Christians to control the nation. He wants to know if Michele Bachmann believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, thinks homosexuality is an abomination, claims slavery wasn’t so bad, and is suspicious of non-Christian ideas. He has similar concerns about Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman.

Of course, his concerns don’t extend to Barack Obama’s Christianity, nor Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s Catholicism, Harry Reid’s Mormonism, or Hillary Clinton’s Methodism. Perhaps he views their religious choices as inconsequential since they largely agree with him. The problem seems to be the fusion of conservative faith with conservative politics. Someone who sees the world differently from him and who believes in the Bible as the Word of God may not be fit to run the country. He says:

But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

In other words, conservative religious believers may not be part of the reality-based community. They’re living in a fantasy world where there are angels and demons, where God speaks through prophets, and where Jesus is actually Lord over stuff. It’s okay to have religious faith, just not okay to follow it religiously.

The funny thing is, I actually agree with Keller’s overall premise. We DO have a right to know the worldviews and beliefs that underlie a candidate’s positions and policies. If their faith is real, a candidate will make decisions differently if they are a Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, atheist, or Unitarian. The problem with much political discourse in our country is the debate is only surface-level. News channels will dissect debts, limits, and spending without touching the philosophical principles about the nature of man, the role of government, and our ethical obligations which undergird the issue. Pro-life and pro-choice forces will wage a war of sound bites and protests while never dealing with the assumptions about humanity, rights, and authority which give rise to their differing positions.

Where I would disagree with Keller is in his position – implied by the religions and politicians he takes issue with – that only conservative religious believers have underlying beliefs which will drive their decisions. The idea that only a few Republicans are guided by un-provable faith commitments while the rest of civilized society exists in a realm of scientifically demonstrable reality is laughable. Everyone – whether atheist, agnostic, or Catholic – is guided by philosophical commitments that define their worldview and cannot be empirically proven. Furthermore, no law can be passed or policy decision made without these faith commitments. Let’s look at two examples: racism and the environment.

If I want to make a law to prohibit race-based discrimination, I must do so on the basis of a belief which cannot be scientifically proven – that all people are created equal and have inherent value. A Christian will derive this belief from the book of Genesis which teaches that men and women are created in the image of God. An atheist, on the other hand, will have a harder time with racism as revealed in the title to Darwin’s famous work on evolution: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In an evolutionary view of the world, it is conceivable that some races may be superior to others. This does not mean atheists are racists. Merely that, if they believe racism is wrong, they do so on the basis of an un-provable faith commitment about the equality and value of humanity.

The same is true of caring for the environment. We have created an entire government agency – the EPA – to do just that. But why? A Christian can support an EPA because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1) and God has called us to care for it (Gen. 2:15) because He will one day remake it in glory (Rom. 8:21). Whereas an atheist knows someday the sun will burn out and the earth and all of man’s accomplishments will come to an end. Yet they decide to care for the environment because they love their children and perhaps have an evolutionary desire to pass on their genes and need a healthy planet to do it. The reasoning for or against the creation and funding of an EPA rests on un-provable faith commitments – whether Christian or atheist – about the value of the planet.

Keller is concerned religious doctrine may be used to deny rights to citizens. Is he equally concerned about Marxist doctrine doing the same thing – as it is today in China, Cuba, and North Korea? Is it better to have candidates guided by faith in Marxist principles or biblical principles? All of us, no matter our religion or lack thereof, have a worldview with philosophical principles that rest on faith and not on scientific proof. That worldview may be based on the writings of Karl Marx, the apostle Paul, Charles Darwin, or the prophet Mohammed. So we should do as Keller suggests and ask the tough questions about the faith of our candidates. But let us not be naïve and assume only conservative Christians are guided by un-provable ideas. Let’s live in a reality-based community that realizes every person who has ever written or passed any law or policy is guided by their own un-provable beliefs and ideas. Maybe then we can start understanding and appreciating one another’s different views, even if those views include alien visitors (Tom Cruise anyone?).


(image credit)


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