At the Intersection of Politics and Religion

Rick Perry talks about it. Michele Bachmann talks about it. Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney get questioned about it. Religion. Is it fair game as a campaign issue?

In our country, we do not require a particular religious affiliation to hold public office. It was one of the greatest advances of human governance in history. One’s private beliefs could no longer be officially considered in a bid for office.

What about unofficially?

No self-respecting reporter, if there are any left, would consider grilling a candidate on his/her religious preferences in the midst of a campaign. To do so would, or should, prompt a firm “None of your business, Jackass.”

The field of Republican candidates has for the most part removed any such restraint from consideration. They LOVE talking about religion. Perry and Bachmann want Biblical principles to be a part of governance, so much so that one could rationally wonder just how close they each come to desiring a theocracy.

This is not a healthy trend in our political space. The Right’s invoking the guidance of a God who loves capitalism and hates big government is no more convincing than the Left’s admonitions that Jesus would have been a liberal or a Muslim’s claim that Allah wants infidels converted or killed. Those of us without institutionalized religious beliefs scratch our heads and wonder why candidates think any of this matters. People of other faiths start looking around for the enforcers, who anticipate delivering a good unbeliever-head-thumping with the lead shot packed in their Bible covers or slitting someone’s throat in the name of Allah.

The problem with bringing religion into politics is not that religion is bad, or stupid, or dangerous. It can be all three, but that is not the point. Were a candidate to matter-of-factly reveal his/her convictions as one would a preference for Beethoven over Mozart, religion would hold no sway in public discourse. The public at large could shrug it off and go on to address real political issues.

Instead, there is a sinister undercurrent of Chosen versus Unchosen. Perry and Bachmann both may say that they believe in religious freedom, but yoking the perfectly rational philosophy of limited government with the faith-based insistence that God wants it that way is shady. It smacks of holding up one’s particular faith as the gold standard of decency and goodness for the rest of us.

While one may be convinced of that fact, governance is not about clubbing each other over the head with scripture. It is about working out public differences in a civil manner and ensuring that each is free to follow his/her own convictions without interference in private. That is, or should be, worked out in the framework of reason, not faith.

Thus it is fair to ask Perry and Bachmann and any other candidate who makes faith a centerpiece of his/her campaign some hard questions. First, to what degree does their faith inform their views of governance? When they say we should “return to Biblical principles,” what do they mean? When they want the right to be tried under Shariah law, what does this imply about equality under the law?

Do they mean principles such as financial prudence, which is not exclusively a claim of Christian thinking, or something more worrisome, such as more “faith-based” government initiatives? Do they want a “Christian” or “Muslim” nation? Do they ask God what to do about Israel? About the deficit? If so, why should we accept that God or Allah has any wisdom regarding geopolitical matters?

The Republican field has set itself up for a great fall. Instead of running on a limited-government platform that appeals to all manner of good instincts in the human soul, they have largely chosen to pander to the arrogant and often irrational drives of religious fundamentalists. That will not set well with those who discern that they are not among the Chosen. Such is not an indictment of religion per se, but a plea to set it back in its right place–the privacy of one’s own heart.


About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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