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.