Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Religion in Politics: Identity vs. Arguments

The negative reaction of some voters to Mitt Romney's Mormonism has prompted The New Republic's Jonathan Chait to issue the latest broadside against "faith-based politics."  He begins by trying to counter the argument that demanding "secularism [in politics] is an assault upon faith":

Secular political discourse does not place religious voters or candidates at a disadvantage. It merely denies them an advantage. A religious candidate can campaign on the war in Iraq or health care or gay marriage just as easily as a secular candidate can. But a secular candidate can't run on his faith in the way a religious candidate can. ("Secular," of course, means a lack of political religiosity, rather than a lack of religious belief.) Religion-infused politics places a massive handicap on candidates and voters who are secular or subscribe to minority religions.

This argument -- that publicly-religious politicians have an unfair advantage -- has some validity in one context, but it's totally unconvincing in another.

Chait's argument may have some applicability if it's directed against candidates who ask you to vote for them, or against others, because of their religious identity.  If any candidate can make his or her favored arguments (religious or not) on Iraq or health care or gay marriage, then it indeed may be an unwarranted move -- one we ought to deem unfair -- for the candidate to appeal to voters simply on the ground that "I'm a born-again Christian" or "I'm a mass-attending Catholic."  Except for cases at the margins, inferences from a person's religious identity to his/her basic fitness for office are very weak; and even inferences from religious identity to policy positions, while somewhat more reliable, are not nearly as reliable as having the person articulate his/her actual positions (e.g. most evangelicals oppose abortion but not all do).  Offering religious identity as a reason to vote for/against someone (rather than simply lightly mentioning it in the course of giving information about candidates) seems far more likely to encourage irrelevant factors and  prejudices than to shed light on a candidates' qualifications.  And admittedly the apparent trigger for Chait's colum was people saying they'd vote against Romney solely because of his religious identity.

But Chait's argument seems quite wrong if it's applied to the broader question of religion in politics: whether candidates can raise religious arguments in their campaigning, such as "God demands that our laws put the poor first" or "same-sex marriage is outside of the creator's plan for the family and sexuality."  To disqualify such arguments -- to object not that they're wrong, but that they shouldn't even be raised -- surely puts a disability on the religious candidate and the religious voter.  The whole point is that seriously religious citizens cannot confine themselves to secular arguments on "the war in Iraq or health care or gay marriage just as easily as a secular candidate can."  The religious citizen's deep and foundational beliefs about war, social justice, and the family are religious arguments; the secular citizen's foundational arguments on these matters are secular; so to rule out the former set of arguments and not the latter denies the former group of citizens, and not the latter, the ability to set forth their foundational claims and thus participate fully in the political process.

So there's a difference, it seems to me, between religious-identity claims by politicians and voters ("vote for/against X because s/he is/isn't a Christian") and religious-argument claims ("support/oppose this policy -- or a candidate who espouses it -- because it's supported/opposed by God's will").  Although Chait's piece starts out targeting religious-identity claims, unfortunately he ends up attacking religious-argument claims as well.  For example, he criticizes various historical political movements that were based on religious arguments, and he says that the civil rights movement was only a narrow exception to the general rule against invoking religion to argue about policy:

It's certainly true that the civil rights movement was rooted in black churches and the language of religious liberation. But this was an artifact of a unique situation. Slavery, Jim Crow, and the one-party white supremacist character of Southern politics had destroyed every other possible outlet for African American politics other than the church. Civil rights activism took the form of preaching because that was the only form black politics could take.

Ross Douthat has a nice critique of that passage:

There’s an important truth buried somewhere in this strange argument, which is that faith-based politics is more appropriately applied to deep political injustices than to superficial ones. When you invoke Biblical language to oppose slavery or segregation, abortion or an unjust war, there’s a consonance between rhetoric and reality that doesn’t exist when you invoke the New Testament to support progressive taxation or school vouchers.

But as I said, that point is buried; on the surface Chait’s argument is condescending and bizarre. It’s so kind of him to grant the civil rights movement permission to talk about Moses and the Promised Land, so gracious of him to let them appeal to their fellow Southerners’ Christian principles in making the case for human equality, so considerate of him to grant a special exception to the rule of secular politics. . . .

No, this won’t do. There’s no standard you can set that doesn’t fatally compromise the standing of religious Americans, and unduly privilege the interests (and prejudices) of their secular fellow citizens.



Berg, Thomas | Permalink

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