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What is fair comment on a candidate's religion?

In Commentary

2:20 pm on Fri, 10.21.11

While the Constitution specifically prohibits government from administering religious tests as a condition for holding public office, the First Amendment guarantees our right to advocate for or against candidates on any basis we choose, including their religion. We can, if we like, support or oppose a candidate for no better reason than that he or she is, for example, a Catholic. Historically, some Americans have done just that, as was the case with the anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party of the 19th Century.

In the current election cycle, Republican presidential candidates have made direct appeals to evangelical pastors on the basis of religiously fraught issues, especially same-sex marriage and public displays of objects such as Nativity scenes and the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, a number of critics have commented negatively about the religious views of Republican candidates, especially those of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. My intention here is to focus on these comments about the religious beliefs of politicians and to consider what is fair and what is unfair criticism.

Generally, attention to what politicians say about religion is healthy for our country, because the use of religion by politicians is often divisive. Their tactic is to energize the political base by giving political positions religious sanction. The not very subtle message of practitioners of this sort of politics is that one's position on an issue such as abortion or stem cell research is God's position, and one's political campaign is a religious crusade. This tactic works best when its message is targeted to the fraction of the population to which it has the greatest appeal. It backfires when the public at large is aware of it and reacts against the use of religion for political purposes. That is why the more light shed on the relation of politics to religion the better.

However, just as politicians can use religion divisively, so critics of religiously oriented politicians can be divisive. When religious people think they are being treated unfairly by their critics, and when they think that their religious beliefs are under attack, the same "us against them" mentality brought about by wedge issue politicians is fostered by the critics. The question, then, is when commentary about the religious orientation of politicians is appropriate and helpful to our understanding of politics and when it is unfair and destructive.

Unfair Commentary

Attacks on religious beliefs are unfair and destructive when the beliefs in question bear little or no relationship to how the believer decides political questions. There is no reason to comment on a politician's religion if his religion has no connection to any position on a political issue. Where commentators do speak without making the connection between faith and policy, believers are justified in resenting gratuitous criticism.

In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Bill Keller makes the reasonable argument that candidates should be questioned about their faith when their beliefs might affect their decision making once in office. But not content to make his point, Keller goes out of his way to make fun of Mormons: "I honestly don't care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets buried in upstate New York." Keller is writing about the consequences of religious belief on the practice of politics. If Mormon practices, which he characterizes as "baggage" and "bizarre," are of no political consequence, which he admits when he says, "I honestly don't care," then the obvious question is what possible purpose does this extraneous reference have other than gratuitously to make sport of Mormons? With two Mormons now running for president, Keller's aside does nothing more than stir up the prejudice some have toward Mormons that is unrelated to the ability of either candidate or to their positions on issues.

Similarly unrelated to public policy is criticism of Bachmann's beliefs about "submissiveness"--her approval of Paul's admonition that wives should be submissive to their husbands. In a Washington Post opinion piece, R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University, points out that as currently used by conservative Christians, "The meaning of 'submission' is, first and foremost, surrender to God's will, for men no less than for women." Griffith continues, "Women like Michele Bachmann are now thoroughly accepted as public authorities in extremely conservative Christian circles." In other words, according to Griffith, Bachmann's citation of Paul does not imply a subservient role for women in American life. Indeed, Bachmann's very assertive public persona indicates the opposite. Griffith counsels that attention should be directed to Bachmann's positions on political issues rather than to her femininity.

A broader attack on a theological position, made without reference to any supposed connection between belief and politics, is in a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank critical of Perry:

"Perry has no use for those who 'want to recognize Jesus as a good teacher, but nothing more.' Of those non-Christians, Perry asks, 'Why call him good if he has lied about his claims of deity and misled two millennia of followers?'"

If, without any reference to a possible implication for public policy, Perry's theological position on the nature of Christ should somehow weigh against his candidacy for high office it would weigh equally against countless other Christians who reject the notion of "Jesus as a good teacher, but nothing more." Perry's view is quite similar to that of the great modern popularizer of basic Christianity, C.S. Lewis:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher."

Keller's jest at Mormons, comments on Bachmann's views on submissiveness and Milbank's broadside against basic Christology are all attacks on religious views and are all unconnected to the qualifications or policies of the candidates. They divide America according to religion and are destructive to civil discourse.

A second form of unfair commentary is to exaggerate what a candidate has said in order to portray him or her as a caricature of a religious politician. In 2005, Perry signed two bills in Texas, one concerning abortion, the other gay marriage, in the gymnasium of a church school. When criticized about the site of the signings, Perry reportedly said, "If we did this in a parking lot of Wal-Mart, God would be there." Here is how Tiffany Stanley characterized Perry's comment in an article in The New Republic: "God, he seemed to say, was everywhere, so why bother trying to separate church and state."

Whatever one may think of Perry's positions on abortion and gay marriage, nothing in his comment speaks about the separation of church and state. There is no hint in his remark that he "seemed to say" "why bother" trying to separate the two. Indeed, there is no evidence in the article that Perry has ever said such a thing in any context, or, for that matter, that such a thought has ever crossed his mind. Stanley has transformed an unremarkable comment that God is omnipresent into a fictitious, cavalier approach to the First Amendment.

A similarly absurd caricature of Bachmann appeared in the Huffington Post after she had commented in jest about Hurricane Irene and an East Coast earthquake. She had said, "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, are you going to start listening to me here." Bachmann's spokesperson stated the obvious, that the candidate had spoken in jest. But the Huffington Post claimed that Bachmann had described the hurricane and earthquake as "messages from God to warn 'politicians' to start heeding divine guidance, which she suggested is being channeled through small government conservatives." The Huffington Post might lighten up a bit.

A common method of attack against religiously conservative politicians is to associate them with extreme opinions espoused by others. Consider this complex syllogism advanced by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker: 1. In the late 1970's Michele Bachmann enrolled in the O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University. 2. The law school created a review called Journal of Christian Jurisprudence. 3. The Journal published articles by Rousas John Rushdoony. 4. Rushdoony "has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which the Old Testament law -- execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for example -- would be instituted."

The implication of this convoluted reasoning is that Bachmann is connected with support for executing adulterers and homosexuals. Lizza also asserts that while at law school, Bachmann was a research assistant for a law professor named John Eidsmoe. A quarter of a century later, in 2005, Eidsmoe addressed a convention of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which Lizza describes as "a defiantly pro-white, and anti-black, organization." The apparent reasoning here is that Bachmann is connected with the views of an organization before which a person had made a speech, and that she had worked for that person 25 years earlier.

The same sort of logic is applied to Rick Perry by Tiffany Stanley. She reports that Perry's August 2011 religious rally was funded by "a ministry designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay sentiments." She says that John Hagee was on stage for the rally, whose support was rejected by John McCain in 2008 "after [Hagee's] anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic statements were circulated." The innuendo, of course, is to identify Perry with hate for gays, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.

One would hope that the tactic of guilt by association so aggressively practiced by Sen. Joseph McCarthy had died a welcome death in the 1950's. But it lives on in the efforts of both right and left to connect politicians to the most outrageous statements of religious personages. This was so in the 2008 presidential campaign as Republicans tied Barack Obama to the excessive rhetoric of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It is true today, as critics try to identify Republican candidates with religious extremists.

Ironically, the attempt to identify the thinking of political leaders with the pronouncements of religious personages finds little support in the Bible or in present day reality. The prophets of Ancient Israel were in regular opposition to the political leaders of the day while in face to face contact with them. Physical proximity of rulers to prophets did not equate with agreement. Nor does church membership necessarily imply agreement with the political positions of churches. Today, many Catholic politicians do not agree with church teachings on abortion, embryonic stem cell research and the death penalty. If politicians in mainline Protestant traditions are aware of the various resolutions passed in denominational conventions, they do not feel bound by them. Although some church goers travel many miles to have their pre-existing political ideas reinforced from the pulpit, many others attend church to be challenged by latter-day prophets. The point is that there may not be an identity of viewpoints between politicians and religious leaders with whom they associate. To suggest that there must be an identity is unfair and quite often untrue.

Fair Commentary

If religious beliefs are appropriate subjects for comment when they are related to public policy, anything the politician has said or done that is connected to the duties of political office are open to comment from any point of view, including from those who view politics from the perspective of religion. For example, many faithful people are concerned about social justice, the poor and affordable health care. Understandably, these people will question politicians on issues related to those subjects. Similarly, religious people who are concerned about moral values and who think that government's actions affect the well-being of family life will focus on social issues. For both liberal and conservative faithful, the point of interest is how the politician would act on public policy, not what a person believes about God. Ryan Lizza is quite within bounds by pointing out that Michele Bachmann led fights to defend the public display of the Ten Commandments and to ban same sex marriage when she was in the Minnesota State Senate. His commentary was about her stands on particular issues, not on her religious beliefs and associations.

It is fair to ask politicians how their religious beliefs would influence actions they might take in public office. Bill Keller has raised some questions that could be fairly put to presidential candidates who are conservative Christians. For example, Keller asks how a candidate's religious beliefs would affect policies relating to science such as embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of evolution. Another question suggested by Keller is whether a candidate for president would appoint a Muslim or an atheist to the federal bench. Again, such questions are fair because they pertain to how religion might affect the candidate's actions if elected.

Beyond positions on specific policies, it is fair to ask how religion might affect the intensity a politician would bring to the debate of hot button issues. Is the politician a quiet, even reluctant participant when wedge issues arise, or does he raise hot subjects at every opportunity and engage in fiery oratory? In the Senate, members must vote on all issues, including those issues such as gay marriage that are intentionally divisive. But no senator is required to raise divisive issues in the first place or to fan the oratorical fires while debating them. Some senators delight in making the most of divisive issues. Other senators play down those issues as best they can. So it's important to know more than a politician's stand on an issue. We should know whether the politician will heat up or cool down the rhetoric.

In his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank cites examples of Rick Perry's penchant for inflammatory rhetoric. On people who would omit "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, Milbank offers this quote from Perry: "Shall they stand before God and brag that they fought to scrub His glorious name from the nation's pledge?" Milbank goes on to note that Perry uses the language of war in speaking of social issues. "If the attackers win many more victories...the culture war may be lost before we know it." In stark contrast to Perry's enthusiasm for culture war, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, an across the board conservative, has proposed a truce on those most divisive subjects so Americans can attempt to find common ground on the economy.

One of the characteristics of the supposedly religious issues (God in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments in court houses, prayer before football games, etc.) is that they generate much more heat than light. They have nothing to do with how we should address the national debt or whether we should commit troops to war, but they make Americans very angry with each other on matters of, at most, minuscule practical consequence. They have equally limited religious importance. It is difficult to imagine that when we stand before God, as Perry envisions, God will judge us on whether his name is in or out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

In sum, as the specifics of a politician's positions on the issues are the proper subject of fair comment, so are the priorities politicians emphasize and the tone in which they speak. The overarching question that includes both substance and tone is: How does the politician understand the relationship between faith and politics? How, if at all, does what a politician believes about religion affect how the politician would act in public office? It's the key subject raised in Keller's article where he says: "I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed." Concerning Perry, Keller wonders if the Governor thinks "that the Bible offers explicit guidance on public policy -- for example tax policy."

Compromise and Stalemate

Dana Milbank asserts that Perry "forecasts divine punishment for those who hold different political views." This charge, if true, is most serious whether or not we happen to agree with the specific positions advocated by the governor. The belief that one's politics are directed by God and that political adversaries are subject to divine punishment is destructive of the political system as a whole. There is wisdom in the cliche that politics is the art of compromise. The aim of politics is to arrive at reasonable agreements among groups with different ideologies and competing interests. Compromise makes it possible to hold a diverse country together, and to move beyond gridlock to some acceptable resolution of conflict. But compromise is possible when all sides recognize that their ideas are not sacrosanct and are open to adjustment, and that competing positions are worth accommodating. A politician who thinks that his views are explicitly directed by God and that opponents are the enemies of God would be unlikely to compromise with what he views as evil.

Steadfast belief in one's point of view and total rejection of one's opponents is where we are in current American politics. The result is stalemate. From the standpoint of the nation's interest, it is unworkable. From the standpoint of religion, it is idolatry, because it presumes to identify one's own political ideology with the will of God. It is a way of thinking directly contrary to God's word to Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts nor your ways my ways, says the Lord."

An inquiry into a politician's tendency to identify his thoughts with God's thoughts is highly relevant to the national debate. If, as Bill Keller suggests, a candidate thinks that "the Bible gives explicit guidance on public policy," the American people should know that before they vote. If Rick Perry thinks, as Dana Milbank asserts, that God will punish people with different views, we should know that. This is clearly a subject for fair, even essential, comment.

No doubt, America would resoundingly reject a politician who believed that his was a message from God and that his enemies would be punished. But how would we know that a politician holds such beliefs. Perhaps someone on the fringe would admit to such a view, but it is inconceivable that a politician with a reasonable chance of reaching high office would openly state that the Bible directs his positions on policy or that God will punish his opponents. Nearly all politicians would deny such notions if the questions were put to them directly.

Then, what evidence should we be looking for as we consider whether, despite protestations to the contrary, a politician sees himself as a conduit for God's purpose. I suggest that the following considerations are worth our attention.

1. How conspicuously does the politician wear religion on his sleeve? Does the politician make religion, especially sectarian as opposed to the more general "public" religion, part of his political persona? This test is not decisive because faith affects the entirety of a person's life. Faithful people will not check religion at the door when they enter public office. Examples of people practicing their religion while in public office come readily to mind: Jimmy Carter teaching Bible classes while President; Joe Lieberman walking miles to the Capitol to accommodate his Senate responsibilities in his observance of Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, does the politician appear to be presenting himself as a sectarian representative in government? Jesus taught us to "beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them."

2. To what extent does the politician emphasize divisive issues that have special appeal to sectarian audiences? Does he speak to church groups about Nativity scenes on public property and gay marriage? When the candidate speaks on social issues, does he purport to know God's will on political questions?

3. Is the politician willing to compromise? As stated above, the answer to this question is the tip off on whether politicians see themselves as bearers of God's truth and whether their performance in office will yield only division and stalemate.

A politician who is willing to compromise understands the distinction between politics and religion. The first is not an extension of the second. Religion has to do with ultimate reality. Politics is simply politics. This is not to say that politics isn't important. It is important, which is why we should try to make it work better than it's working now. But, however well it works, it remains only politics -- the very human attempt to accommodate very human differences. Commentators can make a significant contribution by pointing out to the rest of us those politicians who confuse religion with politics. When we discover such politicians, we should not vote for them.

John C. Danforth is an Episcopal priest and a former U.S. senator. To reach him, contact Beacon staff writer Dale Singer.

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