Why politicians’ faith shouldn’t be private

BY SHAY O'REILLY | AUGUST 31, 2011 7:20 AM

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Michele Bachmann doesn’t want to talk about religion.

Attempts by reporters to question Bachmann’s religious beliefs have been met with derision: Earlier this month, Bachmann pushed aside questions about her faith and accompanying views of homosexuality, saying she was campaigning on “serious issues.” At the Ames debate, a question about whether Bachmann would be submissive to her husband (per religious guidelines) drew boos from the crowd.

But as more people are beginning to recognize, religion should be fair game for questioning.

New York Times Editor Bill Keller started the ball rolling with an Aug. 25 column, declaring that the media should ask candidates questions about their beliefs, because personal faith is relevant to the governance of the country. His column touched on the usual concerns: belief in science, allegiance to outside forces, and gay marriage.

But more than a single platform or a set allegiance, religion is an entirely separate, private ideology with its own power structure and hierarchy — and it is impossible to separate this ideology from politics. Almost paradoxically, the framing of politicians’ religion as a private matter can jeopardize the separation of church and state. 

With most Americans religious (and Christian), America’s secularism is constantly threatened with contamination by religious doctrine.

This is dangerous; unlike policy positions, there’s no room created for citizen discourse around faith — whether the United States will face a Biblical war in the Middle East is not an issue subject to lobbying. It’s important, therefore, to get religious beliefs out into the open; like other biases, citizens primed to recognize it are also primed to oppose it.

This is not to suggest a religious litmus test for candidates or to endorse the silly scandals of years past. It’s easy to pooh-pooh religious scaremongering, whether it takes the form of right-wing concerns about radical black theology or left-wing panic over connections to Christian Dominionism. But a refusal to stoke the fires of hysteria shouldn’t prevent citizens and the media from asking solid questions about the substance and direction of candidates’ faith.

Unfortunately, the examples that Keller lists on the Times website are mostly shallow: Do candidates believe in evolution? Are Mormons Christians?

Keller’s primary salient question asks how candidates resolve disagreements between their faith and the Constitution; the others are mostly fluff pieces, useful in skeptic propaganda but lacking in real-world effects. Evolution is an undeniable fact, but it’s hard to see how a denial of evolution poses more of a threat to proper governance than a secular misunderstanding of economics.

So here are some questions that should be asked, from the perspective of a religion major: 

• Is America a country chosen by God? If so, what does that mean? If not, why not?

• Do righteous acts on Earth result in earthly rewards, according to your faith? Do rich people generally deserve their rewards, and are these rewards given to them by God?

• When your religious beliefs conflict with accepted secular practice, which one should bow to the other?

• How does your religion suggest that you treat people of differing faiths, cultures, or lifestyles?

It’s important to remember that religious politicians are not solely Republicans. President Jimmy Carter was an evangelical, and his religious perspective influenced his views as surely as Bachmann’s influenced hers. Religion plays a significant role in the philosophy of governance whether one’s personal Jesus is a socialist who preached against the evils of wealth or a tough-on-slackers macho man.

Either way, the best way of separating religious worldview from government, and subsequently maintaining the separation of church and state, is to drag religious convictions into the open. From there, it is up to citizens to evaluate whether a candidate’s religious beliefs — no matter what they are — will motivate them to change the political landscape in irrevocable ways. 

It’s not proper dinner-table conversation, but religious questioning is necessary nonetheless.

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