The religion of politics and the politics of religion
Charlie Ducey | Monday, February 29, 2016
A few weeks ago, my sources tell me, Papa Francisco apparently crossed the line between politics and religion by saying that a certain candidate (i.e. the Donald) “is not Christian” for thinking “only about building walls” rather than bridges. Trump replied, interestingly enough, by partially reinforcing the division between politics and religion, as he claimed that “no leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to questions another man’s religion or faith.”
The Pope’s remarks, however, were less politically pointed than Trump made them out to be, as His Holiness also stated that he would not get involved in saying whether to vote or not vote (for Trump, I presume?). The whole fiasco, however, reminded me of the tenuous relation between politics and religion, as expressed in a series of recent Viewpoint articles about Bernie’s religious affiliation.
In the the initial article “Threat to our religious roots,” Eddie Damastra raised the concern that the potential election of a nonreligious president would “fundamentally change the essence of America” and identified Bernie Sanders, with his culturally-but-not-religiously Jewish background, as such a contender. Three letters were published in response to the article.
The first response misconstrued the phrase “Christian nation” as somehow necessitating that such a nation be founded on theological writings and dwelled a lot on deism without seeming to recognize the real concern of Damastra’s article, which was the division between the religious and nonreligious, not that between deism and Christianity. The second response saw the critique of Sanders’ non-religiosity as “fundamentally dangerous to our nation’s guiding principles” which the author described as “not even religious by nature.” The final response ups the ante of those remarks by going to great lengths to paint the U.S. of A as a country based in “secular values,” which apparently amount to pluralism, equality and liberty, back in the times of the Founding Fathers (because what could serve as a better paradigm for a pluralist, equal and free society that one in which property-owning men have exclusive suffrage, own slaves and run natives off their land?).
My contention is that the original article and the responses it generated operate on an understanding of religion that is far too narrow and a division between the secular and religious that is too simple and clean-cut. If the problem is that Bernie doesn’t identify with a religion, then religion seems to be important only insofar as it is used as label. Does the president call himself religious? If so, good. End of story. The other articles, however, either make religion seem exclusivist, in the case of the first, or arbitrary in the voting process, in the case of the latter two.
What lies underneath the third article is the notion that beliefs don’t matter, that religious affiliation is as arbitrary as whether one supports the Jets or the Packers, as the authors write that we should hold a potential leader’s “accomplishments higher than what religious ceremonies he observes.” Accomplishments are great, but it seems to me like they’re saying that we should grant absolutely no heed to the religious background of a candidate. The second article espouses this view more directly when the author writes that we should “not question the supposed degree of religiosity of each candidate. Rather, let us question their ideas, their temperament, their judgement, their commitment to our great nation and its guiding principles.” My question quite simply is: does religion really not matter in voting for a candidate? And, moreover, isn’t the religion of candidates part of “their ideas, their temperament, their judgement?”
The whole point here is that religion involves much more than frequenting a place of worship or professing membership in a particular organized community. Rather, religion consists of ritual practices, a sense of identity, and, at the most basic level, a set of beliefs about the world.
Whether beliefs are perceived as religious or non-religious, they are still part of candidates’ platforms. Some religious beliefs are probably less important to consider in the political process, but that does not mean that all religious beliefs are irrelevant. When religious beliefs come into the political fray in a meaningful way, however, they operate not as mere appeals to authority but as one set of value judgements versus another.
For example, deciding that abortion should be legalized for the sake of female bodily freedom is not based on an incontrovertible fact, but on the belief that a right to bodily freedom exists and that this right extends to the right to terminate a pregnancy. Similarly, deciding that abortion should be illegal is based on a belief that the right to life exists for a human person and that the developing fetus is such a person. The point is that politics necessarily involves drawing on values and beliefs that occupy the religious sphere; it is not purely a matter of quantifiable facts to which we can all agree. We necessarily have to talk about values in talking about politics, and religion is a source of such values which cannot be discounted.
When we understand religion more broadly as a set of beliefs, we can see that those who profess themselves to be religious or non-religious are often talking about markedly similar values. When Bernie works up a sweat talking about how he hurts when a child in America goes hungry, or the need to care for the marginalized, he’s sounding a whole lot like another famous Jew from history. Regardless of Bernie’s perceived religious identity, he is drawing from beliefs shared by religious believers. There is no clear and easy division between many religious and non-religious beliefs, so what we should be thinking about is not whether Bernie holds “religious” beliefs but which “religious” beliefs he holds.
Charlie Ducey waxes poetic without warrant, but who needs a warrant to write poetry? He studies English and German and is in his final year at Notre Dame. Please direct fan art and gripes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.