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Faith and Politics: Rules of the Game

Ira Chernus

At the Republican CNN/YouTube debate in Iowa, Joseph from Dallas appeared on the screen, staring the candidates right in the eye. "How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you," he solemnly warned them. "Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand." The book, of course, was the Bible.

What's wrong with this picture? Yes, it brings religion front and center into the political arena. But so did the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and hundreds of other ministers of the Gospel. Without them there could have been no civil rights movement. So I doubt we want to say that it's always wrong to mix faith and politics.

Even if we wanted to keep the two absolutely separate, we'd be fighting a losing battle. Religion has always been deeply embedded in U.S. politics, for better and for worse. How could it be otherwise? You can't ask people to leave their personal values out of their political choices. And in a country so massively saturated with religion, you can't ask people to leave their faith out of their personal values. So religion will be in politics whether we like it or not.

Given that the faith-politics mix is inevitable, and sometimes a force for progressive change, why do so many progressives demand "Religion out of politics!"? The answer we always hear is, "They're trying to impose their religion on me."

But what exactly does that mean? Was Dr. King trying to impose his religion upon the southern racists when he demanded integration because blacks, too, are "children of God"? More recently, progressive faith-based coalitions have won living wage campaigns. The small businessmen who must pay their help higher wages may well feel that their freedom is curtailed due to someone else's religious beliefs. Is it fair to complain that "they're imposing their religion on us" when gay marriage is banned, but not when racial integration or a living wage is required? We need to think this through carefully.

The real conflict between religion and politics in a democracy comes not from what people say or do but how they talk about it and the authority they invoke for it.

The underlying premise of democracy is that we human beings get to choose our laws and policies, not discover them inscribed in the cosmos. The rules a community lives by are produced by that community, and by no one or nothing else. Any law or policy is fair game, as long as it is constitutional and achieved through the democratic process.

The distinguishing mark of religion, too, is not in its substance but in its style, according to one theory current among some scholars of religion. Any belief, statement, or action can be religious if it claims some transcendent or supernatural authority for its truth. Believing in life after death or giving alms to the poor is no more intrinsically religious than praying for a million dollars, dancing around a tree, or robbing a bank. As long as you say "Hey, I didn't just think this up on my own. I know it's right and true because some eternal transcendent authority told me so," it's religious. And that means it can never be challenged or change.

But challenge and change is the essence of democracy. The only valid authority for political values is the truth discovered by human thought, which is always open to challenge and change. Democracy requires that all the people (either directly or through elected representatives) be thinking and debating about their laws and policies, constantly and endlessly. Every claim made in the political arena must be open to debate without limit.

And the debate must be open to everyone. No one's ideas can be excluded. So everyone must have equal access to the terms of the discussion. No special terms, like the words and symbols of a particular religion, can be privileged, because that would exclude all the people who don't find those words and symbols meaningful. The terms have to be secular.

Those who base their political values on their religion have to translate faith statements into value statements that non-believers can evaluate and debate in rational terms. That's what Dr. King did. When he preached that we are all woven together in a single garment of destiny, no doubt he had theological ideas in mind. But the concept itself is one that any atheist can think about, interpret, and debate in purely secular terms. So Dr. King never imposed his religion on anyone.

There are people who would impose their religion on us, in the strict sense; they would turn their specific religious doctrine or practice directly into a law. And it's worth keeping an eye on them. But it's not worth spending a whole lot of effort worrying about and denouncing them, because there aren't that many of them and they just aren't very powerful. Treating them as if they were only inflates their power unnecessarily. (Mitt Romney had to go out of his way to promise he would never bring his religious doctrines directly into politics, not simply because he's a Mormon, but because even on the right it generally won't wash.)

The majority of people who bring their faith into politics, on the right as well as the left and center, translate that faith into statements of value couched in more or less secular terms. The critical question is whether they allow open-ended challenge and debate, or whether they claim "Hey, you can't challenge this because we didn't make it up. It comes from a transcendent authority than can never change and never be challenged."

If you hear that, it's fair to say "Religion out of politics!" Because at that point the only response adherents of another faith or none at all can make is, "I don't believe you." Then there's nothing more to say. The conversation comes to a dead end. And that means the democratic process comes to an end.

But unless the faithful push democracy to that dead end they have a place in the political arena because, no matter what their motives might be, they are playing by the rules of democracy's game.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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