August 17, 2011

Religion in Politics: What Matters and What Doesn’t

  1:22 am

Sunday morning religion wasn’t limited to churches this past week. NBC’s David Gregory spent the last third of his interview with GOP Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann asking about her personal views on such issues as God’s guidance, her interpretation of biblical passages on husband-wife relations, and her personal views on homosexuality.

Bachmann isn’t the only candidate with religious views that have come under media fire. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has been under constant media fire. Jacob Weisberg of Slate has suggested Romney’s Mormonism should disqualify him as have some fringe evangelicals. Governor Rick Perry’s religious faith has been similarly under scrutiny.

Some have argued that if there is to be any overt religious involvement in politics, then all religious points are fair game, even if dealing with obscure credal issues or statements made in religious non-political events. Not only does this lead to focusing on issues that have nothing to do with governing, but it also encourages prejudice against people of faith running for public office. While Americans still believe in God, there is widespread ignorance around the particulars of religion. This ignorance makes it possible to turn a benign belief into something to fear or ridicule.

Religion has been part of American politics since the founding era. Yet, it hasn’t been the source of political contention that it is today. In fact, it helped unite Americans during the Revolutionary War. This wasn’t because Americans all agreed on religion. While America was not as diverse religiously as it is today, there were nearly a dozen religious backgrounds among the Founding Fathers, including groups such as Presbyterians, Catholics, Quakers, and Episcopalians: groups that had been at odds in the old world.

If the political discussion of God focused on inter-religious snark about the Catholic view of the Eucharist, the Calvinist belief in predestination, or the Quakers quiet sitting services, the result would have been such interreligious loathing that there would be no hope of accomplishing a revolution. Instead, the religious political dialogue of the Founding Fathers focused on three key points about God that helped unite Americans and give them the strength to fight the world’s most successful revolution.

Perhaps, we should take a page from their book.  Rather that looking into the minutiae of a candidate’s personal beliefs, we’d be well-advised to focus any discussion of religion on the candidate’s views on these same points.

1) God is the source of our rights

When the Declaration of Independence states that it is self-evident that we “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” it declares God, rather than the state or the king is the source of rights.

The issue of rights being “God-given” is something that you will hear from conservatives quite a bit. It defines nearly every major debate, whether you’re talking about abortion, religious freedom, the second Amendment, economic policy, and personal liberty, the idea that drives many on the right is that the state cannot legitimately step over these boundaries.

Liberals prefer to view rights as more elastic. In a 2000 debate, Professor Alan Dershowitz rejected the idea of natural law, stating, “Rights are not self-evident. They’re not unalienable. They are subject to modification just like anything else.”  This view is consistent with the left’s belief in a living constitution that ends in the creation of new rights and the curtailment of old ones to fit the courts view of how society is changing.

This is a crucial issue that every candidate needs to address and their actions need to back up their words.

2) God Governs in Human Affairs

Benjamin Franklin, a deist, in pleading for prayers to be offered before meetings of the Constitutional Convention declared this at the Constitutional Convention in calling for prayer. The founders often spoke of Divine providence which in Washington’s words, “wisely orders the affairs of men.”  The Founders believed that God was at work in the world.

This is why they believed in prayer. It was not an exercise in showing religiosity to curry political, but they did so out of a genuine sense that God was active and willing to guide those who asked for his help. At the Constitutional Convention, they had studied the failures of every well-intentioned effort to set up free governments, leading Franklin to quote scripture in declaring, that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages.”

These ideas gave the founders a sense of humility. It made them understand the limitation of their own wisdom to make rules for the lives of others, and is at the core of why self-government is so important in our system of government.

3) God is Just

The founders didn’t believe that God was neutral in human affairs. They believed that he stood on the side of justice. Even the irreligious Thomas Paine wrote, “I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent.  “

However God’s justice was a two-edged sword and many founders realized that there would be consequences if America acted unjustly. On slavery, Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Lincoln later acknowledged the Civil War as part of God’s justice in his second inaugural, quoting scripture to declare, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

A belief in a just God should cause leaders to be just themselves in the way they treat others and to ensure justice is done, knowing that they will called to give an account.

Beyond these simple but profound truths, their remains a whole universe of religious issues that while very important in a theological sense, have no relevance to the public sphere. While it may matter a great deal what a church believes regarding worship styles or if they believe in dietary restrictions, these questions have little relevance to public policy.

And citizens shouldn’t expect answers. It is irrelevant whether a candidate believes you are living in sin, or doesn’t believe that you will enter Heaven, as long as they don’t believe in using government to force you to go to Heaven. It is only the mind of an insecure person that looks to politicians to answer on these sort of issues. For example, what Mitt Romney thinks will happen to me in the afterlife is completely irrelevant as he has no vote on it.

Let’s debate other issues of religious import within the appropriate forums, but when it comes to our nation’s political life, let’s stick to basics that made our nation free.



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I believe that God's justice is as a father's justice with his own children. Not punishment for its own sake, but measured discipline for the purpose of correction, based in love.

To reflect further on Jefferson's quote, I cannot help but think that the love of money and rampant consumerism that abounds in our country will, too, reap the punishments of our God. Will we too have to be humbled into the dust before we cast our own idols aside?


I think people should base their vote on whatever they want to base it on. If that means a candidates religion is something to be looked at, then so be it. With that said, as with anything in politics, there is a tendency of voters to only take a superficial look at things and for opponents to twist the truth in order to hurt an opponent (see Huckabee 2008). As a Mormon supporting a Mormon candidate, my problem is not with those that would base their vote on whether they are comfortable with a Mormon president or not, but whether they do so out of ignorance or not. If religion is important enough to be used as a criteria for the presidency, make sure you know that you have things right before you start rejecting people that you aren't familiar with.


While I know that Article VI of the Constitution refers to the gov't not requiring a religious test, I believe individuals should be extremely cautious in applying one themselves. In so doing, they can be "bigoted". For one religious sect to do so to another questions one's true motives.

If one is to use religion as a factor in determining "fitness" for office or otherwise, applying critical thinking to the "fruits of their religious beliefs" would be valuable. Morals, walking the talk, charitable actions, not discriminating others because of their religious beliefs would all be something I would ascertain.

Using one's religion to promote oneself politically would be (and currently has been w/regards to Perry) a sure sign of pandering. True religious convictions does not need to manifest itself in front of thousands or a camera. (One can check Perry's charitable donations over the past ten years to wonder just how much impact the Bible's injunction to care for the poor and needy has had on the newest flavor of the month.)


"NBC’s David Gregory spent the last third of his interview with GOP Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann asking about her personal views on such issues as God’s guidance, her interpretation of biblical passages on husband-wife relations, and her personal views on homosexuality."

Personal views? Perhaps they would merely be personal views if she did not want to impose her religion-based beliefs on the entire nation.


Iowa Caucus (Republican)

Bachmann to win the 2012 Iowa Caucus 38.0% chance

Perry to win the 2012 Iowa Caucus 35.0% chance

Paul to win the 2012 Iowa Caucus 17.0% chance

Romney to win the 2012 Iowa Caucus 5.0% chance

Santorum to win the 2012 Iowa Caucus 0.5% chance


What Adam proposes is virtually impossible at this time, and its mostly because the GOP has granted EV's a seat at the table. Its now part of the base and it would cause a revolt to now try to partition them off or at least limit their influence. It would be akin to the dems deciding (as many probably have privately) that the party has gone quite for enough in promoting gay rights. Let gays fight there battles on the state level. Its too late for that.

One could also interpret any attempt to mask over the differences between beliefs as a King Henry VIII-type attempt to create one single American church that held certain universal views, essentially deism. Of course, such an attempt would violate the First Amendment if pushed by the government.

I think we should just have faith in the American people, who have shown great understanding and acceptance. In an unrelenting desire to discredit and dismiss everything Obama-related, some conservatives overlook the ability of voters to understand the radicalism of a Rev Wright. Voters did not accept it, but they could understand it. And it helped that Obama did offer some explanation of what is called liberation theology.

The lesson, I think, is that voters will not hold a politician responsible for everything a preacher says or every belief held as long as the politician is open and honest.


4. What "religion-based beliefs" is she trying to impose? I don't think she has any business being president of the United States, but it's because she has little to no leadership experience. Her treatment by the press, and some here on this site, is despicable.



Adam is an evangelical, I don't understanding why you think what he's proposing is "virtually impossible at this time?"


Great post!



Show me where she wants to make homosexuality illegal and require people to pray and govern how they run their household according to her beliefs and you'll have a point. However, if she did want to do that, the most relevant questions would center around the laws she would be imposing.


I find Bachmann's type of politics abhorrent.

She says, 'vote for me because of my religious beliefs.'

She wears her religion on her sleeve and leads with it. Rather than being a guiding principle in her life, it is just another tool to get votes.

It's telling that she has proven to be the most dishonest candidate so far in this cycle, willingly telling lie after lie about other candidates and herself.

Doesn't really seem like a Christian thing to do.



Rick Perry is definitely trying to use religion to get votes. His prayer event is an obvious example.

Maybe he thinks that this will distract from people looking at his record. It seems to be working so far as conservative media is not doing a lot of vetting of him yet.

The latest shocker on his record is related to jobs.

The only job growth since 2008 is in the public sector. The private sector in Texas is losing jobs!

Since 2008, Texas has lost private sector jobs and only has job growth due to government hires:

The whole so called "Texas Miracle" is about growth in government spending by the guy who doubled the budget over the last decade.


Key Paragraph - Total jobs. Texas: Up 0.7 percent since the beginning of 2008. U.S: Down 5.6 percent. Since the recession began, Texas has added about 75,000 jobs, one of the few states with any job creation at all.

Overall, the U.S. economy has lost about 5.6 million jobs since then. But net job gains in Texas have come entirely from government hiring, which accounts for 115,000 new jobs over the past three years. The private sector in Texas shed about 40,000 jobs during that time.


Bachmann did lie about Pawlenty at that last debate.


.....and I'm not even talking about just a different interpretation of events or outcome. She made crap up.


14. Exactly. It was sad to watch T-Paw, who was too weak to even defend himself against obvious falsehoods.

He should have called her a bald faced liar to her face and stopped the debate until she apologized, her lies were that offensive. You cannot let someone lie about you to your face.

On the ground here in Iowa, she has the dirtiest campaign by far. I don't know if that's a reflection of Rollin's or Bachmann.



As for the post, it's very good, and I almost completely agree. There are, however, sometimes when a candidate's religion- if fervently held and influential in his life- can certainly influence his politics and policies beyond what you have mentioned. I agree that credal issues such as transubstantiation, the Trinity, predestination, or Sola Scriptura have no dirrect bearing on one's public duties. If it's just a question of what a candidate considers sin, I agree with you. If that understanding of sin spills over into law, then it can become an issue.

Other areas are a little grayer, particularly if a candidate makes it an issue. Consider an evangelical who says we have to "stand by Israel" no matter what "because the Bible says so." Imagine a Catholic who wanted to ban contraception because of the Church's teaching on it. Imagine a woman running for office who portrays her husband as making life altering decisions for her because of her understanding of the Biblical injunction to submit.


Ok, I'll plead ignorance (nothing new for me), what did Bachmann lie about concerning Tpaw? Was it the tying abortion to the budget bill argument they had?


"what did Bachmann lie about concerning Tpaw?" Nothing, it is just sour grapes from the Pawlenty camp. If Mr. Pawlenty would have not wandered off to the Left, he'd still be in the race.


The easiest lie to pin point was her saying Pawlenty "said" 'The era of SMALL government is over.'

While those words did pass his lips, he was refuting that idea from a newspaper column with that title. He was saying the exact opposite, and for her to claim that sentiment came from him was a blatant falsehood.

But she lies so much you can't keep up with them. Most are petty lies (the sign of a truly dishonest person) like saying she had a Family reunion to attend so she couldn't do certain events. There was a family reunion, but she didn't attend it.



Yes, the abortion thing (Bachmann telling of it was nonsensical) and everything Telly said in 19.

In the debate, she said Pawlenty accepted tax hikes (or fee increases) in exchange for removing pro-life protections. Michele said the only reason she voted for the bill was because she's pro-life, not because she supported the taxes.


That made no sense. Pawlenty tried to point that out, saying if it was against life and raised taxes, that's TWO strikes against it, why would you vote for it then?

He should have followed Telly's advice and call her a liar.


Thanks tele and MWS, I dare say if Tpaw had responded the way tele suggested that he'd still be in the race and Bachmann would be on her way out. I also agree that the lie about attending the family reunion is troubling, her mom even called her out!


Not every misstatement is a lie, of course. One can be mistaken. I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt.


22. Good point Pablo.


Michele was mistaken about being at the family reunion earlier in the day.


Benjamin Franklin, a deist, in pleading for prayers to be offered before meetings of the Constitutional Convention declared this at the Constitutional Convention in calling for prayer. The founders often spoke of Divine providence which in Washington’s words, “wisely orders the affairs of men.” The Founders believed that God was at work in the world.

Perhaps you should review the definition of "deism"...


I have a hard time believing that God will be too harsh on those who live his commandments, but don't have the education, intelligence, or haven't had the right exposure to get all the intricate details of his doctrine just right. If this life is about struggling to learn to obey the commandments, then I am happy to work toward that goal, if it's about getting all the details of doctrine correct, then I give up.

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