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Sunday, October 24, 2004

Banishing faith from politics? Good luck!

Tom Beaudoin, assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, wants politicians to stop talking about religion. I think Beaudoin's proposal is misguided.

He writes:

The reasons I want Bush and Kerry to keep quiet about their faith are religious in nature. Why? It comes down to this: Today a public confession of faith by a presidential candidate is so deeply enmeshed in the calculating politics of manipulation that it simply should not be believed. Anyone who thinks a modern major-party candidate can talk about faith in a way that is not seen as angling for some political advantage, some movement in the polls, is asking the impossible.

The problem with political speech is not that it's calculated but that the rest of us aren't critically engaged with it. Beaudoin takes an overly cynical view of politics by saying that political speech, because it is calculated, makes anything a politician says essentially unbelievable. Does he think this phenomenon extends only to politicians' religious statements? The problem isn't just that you can't take a politician's piety seriously; you shouldn't take anything at face value. Does this mean that politicians are all just a bunch of liars? I think a much wiser course than embracing this sort of cynicism is to take what politicians say critically: Do their words accurately reflect their actions and commitments? Do they connect with what we know of the world? And, from a religious perspective, do their words seem rooted in the best instincts of a religious tradition or in its distortions?

Since politicians are rhetoricians — and since politicians in a democracy are trying to persuade voters, who are no more pure in heart or disinteresed than the politicians are — they will use the rhetoric that connects their own goals with the aspirations of voters. Invariably, and whether they use conventionally religious words to do it, they will be speaking religiously because they are speaking about such important things as the purposes and values of our civilization and nation. Politicians may be drawing on a false theology, applying symbols in an idolatrous way (like Bush's gross misapplication of the "wonder-working power" symbol to the nation itself) — they may be speaking in bad faith — but it is the role of theologians and critics to point out the difference between good and bad faith. Beaudoin seems uncomfortable with his role, and so he punts.

Theologians can and should critique the idolatries of the powerful: that's what real prophets do. A theological critic of the political uses of religion will always have plenty of work — and shouldn't try to put himself or herself out of business. If religion is about people's ultimate commitments (as Paul Tillich argued), then as long as people experience ultimate commitment in politics, as they most certainly will, we need theologians to point out that religion — faith — is at work. And we need theologians to point out that faith isn't benign, but that it motivates for good and evil and needs interpretation, critical examination, and redirection to the things that God wants of us.

At the very end of his op-ed, Beaudoin does offer a bit of theological criticism:

Jesus knew that mere talk about faith could be cheap. That's why he sardonically said something that everyone who hears faith-chatter during this campaign season should remember: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." What does it mean to do this will? A little later in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus clarifies: Live generously in relationship to the least among us.

If only he had applied this standard to the politicians rather than ask why they weren't applying it to themselves. I'd suggest that one role of a theologian in a liberal democracy isn't to shame politicians out of using religiously resonant words or to insist that politicians turn themselves into theologians and evangelists, but to show voters how our deepest symbols and most enduring religious traditions call all of us not to partisan arrogance but to the critical work of social and individual repentance.

("Talk That Diminishes Faith," Tom Beaudoin, Washington Post 10.22.04; via Just a Bump in the Beltway, where I left an earlier response in the comments)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 24 October 2004 at 10:52 AM

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October 24, 2004 01:43 PM | Permalink for this comment


I'm going to extend my argument on this point: I think that religious talk is a distraction because the lay public doesn't understand it and are unlikely to read the critique of the theologians. Religion talk has allowed the chattering classes to spend endless hours talking about religion rather than focusing on the issues of policy substance--like Bush's abject failure in every possible policy area. For a case in point, see my deconstruction of Andy Gumbel's silly op ed in today's LA Times.

As I said back at my place, such talk cheapens faith and does nothing to educate the public, in fact, turns it in to entertainment for the masses.


October 24, 2004 05:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Here's my "lay" (and non-UU) person's opinion. I see politicking as a resume and job interview rolled into one. If someone is applying for a job as a clergy person, I'd expect them to talk about their religious affiliation. But the President runs a branch of government.

In federal civil service in this country, a hiring official isn't allowed to let religion be an issue in selecting for a job. The subject is taboo for hiring officials to broach in interviews. Prospective employees are allowed to mention their religious work or affiliation, at their discretion, but most don't, because unless specific church work experience applies directly to the job, it's irrelevant. There's also a requirement for a supervisor to avoid a hostile atmosphere in the workplace, meaning any appearance of religious bias must be avoided. In most cases supervisors don't discuss their religion in the workplace. I think elected and appointed officials should maintain the same standard.

Though I don't belong to an organized religion, I consider myself spiritual, and I'm interested in a wide variety of religious studies. I like discussing religion, and I believe people should feel free to express their beliefs nearly anywhere. I wouldn't mind seeing comparative religion taught in public schools. But government is another matter. I prefer a candidate's religion not be part of their campaign. It gives some voters the wrong idea of the candidate's values, causes others to vote for or against the religion rather than the person or issues, and generally muddies the waters regarding how the candidate will govern. It also leaves open the question of whether the leader will govern unequally those who don't share the same religion. There are other ways of getting across a candidate's values, integrity and commitment to doing right than mentioning their specific religion.


July 19, 2005 08:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

this is an excellent resource for discussion of faith and politics:

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