God's Politics

This latest entry by Jim in the Newsweek/Washington Post series On Faith addresses the following question: As the presidential campaign begins to take shape, do you think it is appropriate and or important for the candidates to express their personal religious views and to use religious rhetoric? Why?

I have said and written many times that I think a good and fair discussion of how a candidate’s faith shapes his or her political values should be viewed as an appropriate and positive thing – it’s as relevant as any other fact about a politician’s background, convictions, and experience for public office.

The more talk in political campaigns about values, the better, and religion is a primary source of values for many Americans. Minority religions and nonreligious people must always be respected and protected in our nation, but the core commitments of religious liberty are not compromised by an open discussion of faith and public life.

Having said that, I also say that it is important to remember that the particular religiosity of a candidate, or how devout they might be, is much less important than how their religious and/or moral commitments shape their values, their political vision and their policy commitments. If one’s religious and ethical convictions don’t shape a candidate’s (or a citizen’s) public life, then what kind of commitments are they?

In a democratic and pluralistic society, we don’t want to evaluate candidates by which denomination or faith tradition they belong to (or whether they are a person of faith at all), and only vote for the candidate in our group. What’s important is not how often they attended church or synagogue (like a tally of votes missed by a member of Congress), but rather the moral compass they bring to their public life and how their convictions shape their political priorities.

I also insist that political appeals, even if rooted in religious convictions, be argued on moral grounds, rather than as sectarian religious demands – so that the people (citizens), whether religious or not, have the capacity to hear and respond. Religion must be disciplined by democracy and contribute to a better and more moral public discourse. Religious convictions must therefore be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don’t get to win just because they are religious (in a nation that is often claimed to be Judeo-Christian). They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good – for all of us and not just the religious.

Or, as Sen. Barack Obama put it at our 2006 Pentecost conference: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”

Susan Jacoby, however, misrepresents all of this in the two paragraphs about my book she included in her response to this question. She takes two short quotes out of context and implies that by saying the answer to President Bush’s “bad theology” is “good theology,” I somehow think that the President of the United States should be the “theologian-in-chief.” In fact, my critique of the president’s theology was making the same point she is making. I wrote in God’s Politics: “a president who believes that the nation is fulfilling a God-given righteous mission and that he serves with a divine appointment can become quite theologically unsettling. … Bush seems to make this mistake over and over again of confusing nation, church, and God. The resulting theology is more an American civil religion than Christian faith.”

I criticize the president’s theology as a Christian, in part because that is how he seeks to justify his policies. But then I argue my political points in the public square on the basis of a morally-based public policy. The two are complementary, not contradictory.

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