The Place of Faith in Public Life

Mar 31, 2006

Given the range and complexity of the interplay between religion and politics, in our own country and others, I do not presume to address such weighty matters from the perspective of a scholar or theologian. Rather I should like to offer some observations about the place of faith in public life based on my own experience.

A principal influence on me was a course I took at Harvard nearly fifty-five years ago on the "Classics of the Christian Tradition", taught by the great historian of American Puritan thought, Perry Miller. We read Kierkegaard, Pascal, Augustine, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was especially important to me. His translation of the insights of Christian faith into the fundamentals of political democracy in his remarkable study, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, directly affected my decision to go into politics and helped shape my commitments as a legislator.

You will understand then why I was agreeably surprised to read an essay in the July 1st issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education in which James O. Freedman said that while he was a student at Harvard, one of the most powerful influences on him, a Jew, was Reinhold Niebuhr. Freedman not only recited that very same book but also the line I took from it as a lodestone for my service in Congress. Wrote Niebuhr: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

Although I feel broadly heir to the Judeo-Christian tradition, my principal heritage is clearly Christian, and Protestant. Let me put my point as simply as I can by saying that I would find it difficult to understand the world and my place in it if I were not a Christian.

Yet what do I mean when I say this? What does it mean to be a Christian? In my view, the central core of the Christian faith is agape, love, self-sacrificing, self-giving, other-regarding love, symbolized by, incarnated by, Christ on the cross.

What, in turn, is the relationship between the Christian faith, looked at in this way, and politics?

When I entered the political arena over fifty years ago, a problem for me was how to justify, from a specifically religious perspective, a political career. For a generation ago, I would remind you, certainly in Protestant circles, there were many, especially of conservative outlook, who argued that agape applied solely to private life and that the individual Christian and the Christian Church must stand aside from the hurly-burly of politics.

Obviously, that was not my view, for I believed—and still do—that our religious faith must touch every dimension of human experience—social, economic and political as well as personal.

And I believe, too, that the question that preoccupied me as a novice politician is still very much with us today: What is the link between the Christian law of love and the practice of politics?

If the question remains the same, as I think it does, the answer for me in 2005 is the same as it was in 1954—that the nexus between the law of love and the practice of politics is the concept of justice.

The idea of justice varies in human history, but I suggest that at the very least, justice means assuring every person his or her due, what he or she is entitled to as a human being.

Now justice is not the same as love. Love does not count or reckon, as Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, reminds us. But justice does. Justice must be calculating. It is not love, therefore, but justice that must be the immediate objective of political action.

Is love then irrelevant to political action? No! On the contrary it is our love for our fellow human beings—commanded Christians by Christ—that generates in us a concern for justice among men and women.

The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, put the point this way:

Associations cannot love one another; a trade union cannot love an employers' federation, nor can one national state love another…. Consequently, the relevance of Christianity in these spheres is quite different from what many Christians suppose it to be. Christian charity manifests itself in the temporal order as a supernatural discernment of, and adhesion to, justice in relation to the equilibrium of power.

For evidence that such analyses are directly relevant to our present day, I urge you to read an essay ( "Giving Justice Its Due") in the July-August 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, by George Perkovich, of the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace.

Commenting on U.S. foreign policy today, Perkovich criticizes what he describes as:

President Bush's narrow focus on one particular principle, political freedom, in isolation from other components of the American creed. After all [says Perkovich], the Pledge of Allegiance promises not only liberty but justice as well. Unfortunately, the elision of the notion of justice from the President's speech matches its elision from his foreign policy, with the result that in recent years, U.S. diplomacy—public and private—has been limping along on one leg and stumbling.

It must be evident from what I have said that I have never understood the doctrine of separation of church and state to mean that religion has no relationship to politics.

The question raised by recent events is not about whether but how religion and politics ought to mix. Now I have said, "Yes" to the question, "Does religious faith have a place in public life?" But I must at the same time insist that there be limitations on the relationship. I should like, therefore, now to suggest some guidelines that can help us distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate mixtures of religion and politics.

The first guideline concerns the level at which religious convictions are most properly applied in public debate. It seems to me obvious that our faith can-and should-be a source of guidance on basic values. Yet I think it equally clear that we must be wary of those who insist-when it comes to public policy-that a principle of religious belief presents only one solution.

In my view, strident insistence that there is only one way that a general principle of religion or morality can be written into the laws of the land comes dangerously close to using the instrument of government to impose doctrinally specific views on others who do not share them.

Let me make clear that I am not saying here that religious leaders or others should not speak out for or against specific policies or on single issues. Rather I am asserting that when they do so, they leave behind the authority and the moral force of their faith and become mundane—in the sense of earthly—political actors. Whatever they propose must be evaluated through the political process, according to the standards of feasibility and judgments about the public good that hold for all citizens of a democratic society.

But there is another point I must make here, one that Joseph Cardinal Bernardin made over two decades ago at Fordham University when he urged his Church to adopt what he called "a consistent ethic of life" rather than focus on just one issue, whether nuclear war or abortion.

In this respect, I remember well that the "right-to-life" advocates who used to visit me in Congress never said a word in support of legislation I was writing to help educate poor children and disabled children, and to provide services to the elderly or vocational training for the disabled. I found the silence of my constituents on these issues of human life eloquent—and distressing.

My second guideline for relating religion and politics follows from the first but is more a matter of tone than of scope or substance. It is that when we appeal to religious convictions in political life, we should do so in a spirit of tolerance and humility, and not with self-righteousness.

We must beware of those who claim for themselves a monopoly on morality and truth in any realm, but especially in politics. Groups that call for the defeat of candidates on so-called moral grounds and that rank public officials on "biblical scorecards" distort the political process. What kind of "morality" was it that assigned a zero to then Congressman Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, and a perfect, 100 percent record to another Congressman convicted in the Abscam scandal?

I was much encouraged in this respect by two recent New York Times essays by a distinguished former United States Senator, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, an Episcopal minister—and a Republican! I speak, of course, of John C. Danforth.

Said Senator Danforth:

In the decade since I left the Senate, American politics has been characterized by two phenomena: the increased activism of the Christian right, especially in the Republican Party, and the collapse of bipartisan collegiality. I do not think it is a stretch to suggest a relationship between the two. To assert that I am on God's side and you are not, that I know God's will and you do not, and that I will use the power of government to advance my understanding of God's kingdom, is certain to produce hostility. ("Onward. Moderate Christian Solders", June 17, 2005)

I have been heartened as well in this regard by the increasing attention given to the voices of evangelical Christian leaders who do not confine their concerns to questions of personal morality and personal relationship to God and Jesus Christ.

I have sought to make clear that I believe that the doctrine of separation of church and state does not mean that religion has no relation to politics. Indeed, I have said that my own religious background was a motivating factor in my decision to pursue the vocation of electoral politics.

Having expressed that conviction, I would nonetheless urge on the part of those who invoke religion in the political process a degree of self-restraint, not to say, humility.

Religious leaders in particular should remind their followers that other solutions from the ones they propose are possible and may be appropriate and, accordingly, religious leaders should be scrupulous in their respect for the right of others to disagree in the public arena. Otherwise, these leaders unfairly constrain debate with innuendoes of faithlessness and even heresy.

For the fact is that each of us brings a particular heritage to bear when he or she enters the political fray, and each of us is obliged to listen intently and respectfully to the arguments of those with differing views. Each of us should be open to persuasion if the reasoning of others speaks more effectively for the public good.

For we must never forget the message that Abraham Lincoln delivered a war-torn nation on the occasion of his second inauguration as President: "Both [parties in the Civil War] read the same bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

Here I recall how Reinhold Niebuhr warned us that religious pluralism itself depends on a sense of our own imperfection. In Niebuhr's words:

"Religious diversity…requires a very high form of religious commitment. It demands that each religion, or each version of a single faith, seek to proclaim its highest insights while yet preserving a humble and contrite recognition of the fact that all actual expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity."

Religious faith therefore ought to be a constant fount of humility.

The price of arrogance, pride, self-righteousness, in the expression of religious convictions in political life is very steep. Even today we hear echoes of idolatry, religious chauvinism and political triumphalism in claims that America is a "Christian nation." Not so! America is a nation of Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics and nonbelievers. We must ever acknowledge, embrace and celebrate that religious and secular heterogeneity. For it is precisely in welcoming such diversity that we keep our society free.

To sum up, these then are some of the guidelines I modestly suggest as we think about how to engage our religious faith on behalf of political purposes.

  • First, that religious convictions should neither be too hastily nor too narrowly translated into public policy positions.
  • Second, in political debate, humility rather than self-righteousness should characterize our appeals to religious sources.

  • And, third, our objective should be, on matters of public morality, to reach consensus rather than to win legal victories that may incorporate our doctrines but divide us as a people.

The year just past and the years immediately ahead promise intense strains on the relationship between our varied faiths and the public order. I, for one, remain confident in the resilience of our democratic institutions, in our respect for one another's beliefs and in the strength of our commitment to religious freedom.

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