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Austin Cline

Piety Doesn't Belong in Politics: Meaninglessness of Religious Talk in Politics

By November 7, 2006

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Republicans have apparently gotten so much political traction out of linking their policies to what God wants that it's become conventional wisdom that Democrats must do the same. There is a perceived "god gap" between the two parties, with Democrats' failures in the elections due to their failure to effectively link their positions to the demands of religion and piety.

If this is true, it's a sign not of the failure of the Democratic Party but rather a failure of American liberal democracy. For liberal democracy to work, people must discuss the actual issues, policies, and principles of how to govern the community. None of this is even remotely achieved when politicians instead keep talking about how religious they are, about how God has called them to enter politics, or about how their positions are based on the Will of God.

The infusion of God talk into both parties' campaign discourse adds nothing to the public's ability to vote wisely.

What are we supposed to learn when a candidate talks about his faith: That he is a good person? The rich history of religious bounders and charlatans should give the lie to that hope. Nor has a sincere belief in God prevented behavior we now view as morally repugnant. There were few more religious Americans than antebellum slaveholders and their political representatives; their claim to a divine mandate for slavery was based in unimpeachable Scriptural authority.

Or perhaps a politician's discussion of his prayer habits should reassure the public he'll make the right decisions in office. But what if opposing candidates declare themselves supplicants of the divine will — how will a voter decide who is most likely to receive divine guidance?

Source: USA Today

The fact that a person believes in God or prays regularly is ultimately meaningless in a political context. It doesn't tell us anything about their qualifications as a politician or administrator. It tells us nothing about whether they can do a good job thinking through some of the unusual problems that might face them in government. It doesn't even tell them if they are a basically good person who can be trusted to have the character necessary to uphold good public policy.

As Heather Mac Donald asks above, what happens when both candidates for the same position both believe in God and both pray regularly? If these characteristics are the same for both candidates, then we really don't have any useful information. It's like learning that they both have black hair or both are male. So what?

The reasons for invoking God in political campaigns and policy debates isn't to inform the public of something useful, but rather to stop the public from asking questions:

Invoking God in the political realm is a conversation stopper, not an invitation to robust debate. America's rules of religious etiquette demand that we acquiesce silently in a believer's claim of revelation.

When someone claims that God called them to run for office, you can call them a liar or deluded or... what? If you're not willing to make such a strong accusation, there isn't much left to respond with. The claim is made in order to keep people from asking why this person thinks they have what it takes to hold public office. Their skills, background, qualifications, and agenda become irrelevant. God wants it and that's all that matters. Perhaps an opponent can starting claiming that God actually wants them to hold that office, but that would quickly become a very childish exchange.

When someone claims that God backs certain policy proposals, you can call them a liar or deluded or... what? Once again, if you're not willing to make such an accusation there isn't much left. This claim is also made to keep people from asking whether the policy will work, is effective, is the best option, etc. God demands it and that's it. Democrats are told that when Republicans do this, they should start claiming the opposite: that God, Jesus, and the Bible actually back their positions.

This is treated like mature and sensible way to debate politics, but it's not. It's just as useless and childish as two politicians saying "God wants me!"... "NO, God wants ME!" That those who recommend this course of action don't realize this indicates just how far we've fallen from mature, serious political discourse in America. Think about it: politicians are told to defend their policies by claiming that their religion backs it, not on any rational or empirical merits. Amy Sullivan is an especially prominent example of someone promoting such degradation of political discourse, but she's by far not the only one.

This surge of mediagenic piety is discouraging to one of the least heralded segments of the political spectrum: secular conservatives. The conservative movement has supposedly benefited from politicians who publicize their relationship to God. Non-believing conservatives, however, see this electoral gain as a Pyrrhic victory. Conservative principles, they say, are best grounded in reason and evidence, not revelation. ...

If Connecticut senatorial candidate and Iraq war opponent Ned Lamont, say, were to invoke God's plan for humanity to justify withdrawing from Iraq, the Democrat would convince none of the war's supporters, who would be certain that he had misunderstood his divine prompter. Who would determine whether he had? Moreover, monumental decisions such as whether to enter or terminate a war should rest on reasons accessible to believer and non-believer alike.

President Bush says his belief that “God wants everybody to be free” informs his foreign policy. This declaration is disquieting, for it means that the president's war-making decisions are not wholly amenable to worldly evidence. Even if the Iraq adventure were to appear to human minds as patently counterproductive, reversing course would violate a higher mandate.

Being conservative doesn't require that a person be religious; being conservative and religious doesn't require that one always try to base their political, social, or economic positions on religious doctrine, tradition, or scripture. There will always be a lot of continuity between political conservatism and religion because religion typically serves to preserve and promote the traditions which conservatives are trying to conserve; however, many traditional conservatives have also believed that their positions are best defended on the basis of experience, reason, and evidence — not simple-minded appeals to the Bible or personal revelations about what God has instructed them to do.

Where are such conservatives today? They don't have much of a voice in conservative politics anymore. Many of those who remain may feel compelled to suppress their inclinations to use reason over revelation simply because such appeals don't work so well anymore. It's tough to get elected in Republican primaries if you aren't vocal and vociferous in your promotion of how religious you are and how you'll promote your religious values once in office. This isn't just a degradation of political discourse in America generally, it's also a serious degradation of conservatism in particular.


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