Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Serious talk about religion and politics (especially Mormon undergarments and those crazy evangelicals)!

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, wants to dig deeper into the religious faith of the GOP candidates.  He explains:

This year’s Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life — and to get over them. We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a “cult” and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not “overly religious.”) Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are all affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity, which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.

I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York, or that Mormonism’s founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890). Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.

So does transubstantiation count as "baggage" or just bizarre?  And putting aside the fact that Rick Santorum is Catholic, why does evangelical Christianity raise concerns about the separation of fact and fiction?  I'm all in favor of more conversation about faith and politics, but let's be careful that the call for conversation isn't just an excuse for tut-tutting about those silly religious people.

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Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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Rob,

Does anybody REALLY want religion in the public square? I think what most people who claim they do want some occasional nondenominational Judeo-Christian (but mostly Christian) piety that can be embraced by almost anyone who isn't a militant atheist. I don't think the vast majority of people REALLY want to know anything at all about Catholic beliefs about transubstantiation or whether Mormons really believe an angel wrote the Book of Mormon on gold plates would be startling proofs of the truth of the Mormon religion but were (I think) given back after being transcribed.

I think Michele Bachmann gave a totally phony explanation of what it means for a wife to be "submissive," just the way John McCain, after misspeaking terribly about the economy being fundamentally sound, claimed that what he was talking about when he said "the economy" was "the American worker," and how DARE anyone criticize the American worker! If Michele Bachmann really believed in being submissive to her husband (as I think she tried to imply she did when she did what he told her to even though she disagreed), we ought to know an awful lot more about her husband, because he would have the power to dictate national policy. But I don't think we believe our presidential candidates are really going to adhere to their religion in all but the broadest way. So it is probably foolish to talk about it.

I think we really don't want our presidents (or other politicians) to take their religion too seriously. Maybe we want them to be against homosexuality, abortion, etc., but beyond that, I think most people would be creeped out. I would have to say, as someone who was raised Catholic, that I find it difficult to understand how anyone could actually believe the book of Mormon was transcribed from gold plates provided by the Angel Moroni, and I also find it difficult to understand how anyone could actually believe in the literal truth of the Bible from Genesis on. But I think probably anybody who gets to be a presidential nominee for a major party, no matter what his religious beliefs are, is ready to abandon them for the sake of politics.

Posted by: David Nickol | Aug 25, 2011 6:56:00 PM

I am not sure how much sense the above comment makes, but it was heartfelt. :P

Posted by: David Nickol | Aug 25, 2011 10:25:09 PM

It's a bit hypocritical to argue in favor of religion being discussed in relation to politics, and then suggest that calling transubstantiation 'bizarre' is out-of-bounds. You seem, in essence, to be saying that "religion should be a part of our public discussion, but only so long as people respect it and agree with me that it's a good thing."

Serious belief in transubstantiation, Mormon tablets, Genesis, etc, can raise concerns about an individual's rationality and clear-mindedness. It's not something that we regularly discuss in relation to the average religious individual, for various reasons. But when it comes to people who are seeking to control public power, I see nothing wrong with suggesting that their beliefs are irrational or not indicative of the kind of reasoning we expect from political leaders.

I'm fine with faith being a part of the national political discussion. But one aspect of that is that I'm less likely to vote for a candidate who expresses a strong belief in things I find unreasonable.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Aug 26, 2011 12:49:38 AM

Andrew: I don't think folks have to agree with me that religion is a good thing by any stretch (and I don't think that religion is always a good thing). I think the best approach is to focus on questions regarding the causal relationship between the candidate's religious views and her work/decisions as an elected official. It's certainly fair game to ask Michele Bachmann about the role her husband would play in her decision-making as President given her views on male headship. If the questions are more along the lines of, "do you really believe all that golden tablet nonsense?," I fear that we're shedding more heat than light.

Posted by: rob vischer | Aug 26, 2011 9:29:00 AM

Rob,

I am rather confused by all of this, which is causing me to write somewhat incoherently. But I think what I am trying to grapple with is illustrated by your comment to Andrew above. You do seem to be sending somewhat of a mixed message, from my point of view, in that you seem to say that very specific beliefs (like in golden tablets, or transubstantiation, or even wives being submissive to husbands) are really private matters and candidates should not be asked to comment on them. So what we are supposed to do is not ask, "Is it true that you believe homosexuality is a choice and those who make that choice are committing acts of grave depravity," but rather, we must ask, "How will your religious views on homosexuality affect your approach to this or that policy?" And then, of course, we must take the candidate's word that his or her sincerely held beliefs about what is an abomination in the eyes of God will not actually influence any decisions to be made in office." It seems to me that based on this view, the candidate's private religious views need not be a topic of discussion at all, and the question could simply be, "What will your policies be toward homosexuals and homosexuality?"

So we talk about how religion shouldn't be excluded from the public square, but then we wouldn't exactly be admitting religion to the public square. We'd be saying, at most, "How will your religion—which we won't really question you about—affect your approach to this or that issue?" Which, again, seems to me to be a superfluous inclusion of a reference to religion, since one could simply ask, "What is your approach to this issue?"

Posted by: David Nickol | Aug 26, 2011 11:57:43 AM

How does one draw the line between "questions regarding the causal relationship between the candidate's religious views and her work/decisions as an elected official" on the one hand and questions concerning the candidate's general belief in the supernatural?

To give a concrete example, if Rick Perry genuinely believes that praying for rain is a good use of his time because prayers are answered and America (or at least Texas) is a country especially beloved by God, then I would be less likely to believe him if he claims that he will take seriously any scientific reports suggesting that Texas may be entering into a long-term drought cycle requiring collective (i.e., government-mandated) water conservation measures. So why shouldn't I be able to inquire as to how much and how strongly he holds to supernatural beliefs?

Posted by: Brennan | Aug 26, 2011 1:14:33 PM

We want to know what informs a politician's understanding of what is right and what is wrong. For this reason, we want to know something about the politician's beliefs concerning ultimate issues, and particularly: Is there is a natural law that derives from divine law? I would argue that, logically, atheism is more disqualifying than religious belief because, as Nietzche compellingly argues, good and evil do not exist if there is no God.

Whether a politician believes in a particular miracle that his religion attests to is obviously irrelevant.

Only someone who has a superficial understanding of Christianity and history could be favorably impressed by Keller's snide remark about the Eucharist. There are multiple rational grounds for believing, based on faith, in the miracle of transubstantiation. Christ instituted the Eucharist, which has deep roots in the Jewish Passover tradition, and the Church has always affirmed it as a living and continuing miracle. Thus, to believe in Christ and His Church is to believe in transubstantiation. This is not a stretch. A number of saints have expressly affirmed the reality of transubstantiation. On his death bed, St. Thomas Aquinas said when the Viaticum was brought in:

"If in this world there be any knowledge of this sacrament stronger than that of faith, I wish now to use it in affirming that I firmly believe and know as certain that Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, is in this Sacrament . . . I receive Thee, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied, and laboured. Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught. Never have I said anything against Thee: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance. Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous concerning this sacrament or other matters, I submit all to the judgment and correction of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life."

Of course, Keller and people who think like him may not be impressed with St. Thomas's statement given that they probably are at most only dimly aware of the magnitude of St. Thomas's genius. Their gurus tend to be artists. So let us consider then Flannery O'Connor's comment that the Eucharist "is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable." What, one wonders, is the center of existence for Keller and like minded people?


Posted by: Dan | Aug 26, 2011 1:28:00 PM

Andrew said: "Serious belief in transubstantiation . . . can raise concerns about an individual's rationality and clear-mindedness."

Thanks, Dan, for your response about transubstantiation. Could the question be turned around? -- Does serious belief in the universe's creation without a First Cause raise concerns about an individual's rationality and clear-mindedness?

Posted by: Thales | Aug 26, 2011 2:11:08 PM

Dan,

You say: "Whether a politician believes in a particular miracle that his religion attests to is obviously irrelevant."

Then why isn't it irrelevant what Bill Keller thinks of the Eucharist? Certainly most Americans do not share the Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist, and it may very well be (if recent surveys are accurate) that the majority of Catholics don't even believe what the Church teaches about the Eucharist.

I believe in being civil and in respecting PEOPLE who believe things that I don't believe. But exactly how much we are required to respect the BELIEFS of other people seems to me a different question. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that all religious beliefs are worthy of respect. There were people who opposed miscegenation and racial integration on religious grounds, and there were people who believed in slavery on religious grounds, and there were people who burnt "heretics" at the stake claiming to do God's holy will.

I don't think all religious ideas are deserving of respect solely because some people earnestly believe them, and I also don't believe all anti-religious ideas are worthy of scorn. I was raised Catholic and will no doubt always instinctively recoil at the kinds of things Bill Keller said, but I am not quite sure why Keller's unbelief is any more to be scorned than the belief of someone who is totally convinced of transubstantiation. It seems to me really a matter of civility. And of course transubstantiation almost certainly does seem bizarre to most outsiders. Keller wasn't wrong. He just didn't choose his words carefully enough to avoid offending Catholics who consider the Eucharist to be sacred.

Posted by: David Nickol | Aug 26, 2011 2:36:31 PM

Thales asks, "Could the question be turned around? -- Does serious belief in the universe's creation without a First Cause raise concerns about an individual's rationality and clear-mindedness?"

It could, and many religious voters are hesitant to vote for non-religious politicians. I think they're wrong, but their decision to rest their vote on that is no more out-of-bounds than an atheist (or non-Christian) who thinks it's a bad idea to elect public officials who have a sincere belief in transubstantiation.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Aug 26, 2011 7:13:39 PM

Rob: "I think the best approach is to focus on questions regarding the causal relationship between the candidate's religious views and her work/decisions as an elected official."

When voters are making decisions about who to support, they have to look at more than just specific policy positions. That's partially because the level of generalization that policy can be addressed at in a campaign isn't extremely enlightening, and also because elected officials deal with such a large number of different issues. So voters legitimately look at character and values: is this a person who I trust in office and who I think will act approximately like I would want them to in a variety of circumstances?

As Paul Horwitz, I think, put it in a recent post on PrawfsBlawg, there's a republican notion of electing good, upstanding individuals. Since religion is generally about moral character and being such a good, upstanding individual, it's hard to see what elements of religious belief would be irrelevant to judging a politician's character.

"I fear that we're shedding more heat than light."

This reminds me of the balancing test that weighs the probative and prejudicial values of evidence to determine whether it should be admitted. There's certainly a risk that questions about religion (like questions about other things) will be misused, and some questions may be more ripe for misuse than others. But that doesn't mean those questions are per se inappropriate to ask.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Aug 26, 2011 7:24:46 PM

Brennan writes: "To give a concrete example, if Rick Perry genuinely believes that praying for rain is a good use of his time because prayers are answered and America (or at least Texas) is a country especially beloved by God, then I would be less likely to believe him if he claims that he will take seriously any scientific reports suggesting that Texas may be entering into a long-term drought cycle requiring collective (i.e., government-mandated) water conservation measures."

I pray for a safe airplane flight, and yet I expect the airline to do its best to uphold the finest safety standards. Why think that is irrational, if in fact one may have personal and testimonial experience of God answering prayer? If it is possible that God may answer prayer, why is it not irrational to suppose that the person who doesn't pray is the irrational one? After all, how does the praying detract from upholding the safety standards? In fact, it may contribute to doing so, since the person who prays is typically someone who believes he should love his neighbor as himself and that his neighbor is a creature made in God's image and thus has intrinsic dignity. With those background beliefs, he is more, and not less, likely to make sure that his neighbors--including those who are on airplane flights--are safe and secure. The praying is organically connected to his overall understanding of neighbor and God.

Brennan, please don't take this the wrong way, but comments such as yours, because of their one-dimensional and unsophisticated character, are very difficult to take seriously.

Posted by: Francis Beckwith | Aug 27, 2011 3:41:43 PM

Francis, I think you're making the mistake of focusing on whether we should or should not like leaders who take their religion seriously, including the "weirder" bits. People will reach different conclusions on that question in good faith, and no one is likely to be convinced in the course of a short Internet debate to change their position.

The question posed seems much more limited: whether we can take those views into account in either direction. My position is that just like a voter can view belief in transubstantiation, or in the efficacy of prayer, as a positive quality of a candidate, another voter can legitimately see those as bad qualities, and thus they're fair game for discussion.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Aug 27, 2011 5:27:09 PM

Mayne may be the first local LDS leader to announce his orientation over the pulpit. He also was chosen specifically to help build bridges between the Bay Area’s Mormon and gay communities, a gap that was widened by the LDS Church’s overt support of Proposition 8, defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman!"

Posted by: Chris | Aug 31, 2011 4:13:25 PM

Francis,
Don't take this the wrong way, but if you find yourself criticizing a "one-dimensional and unsophisticated" position, perhaps you should consider the possibility that you have misunderstood what's been said? My point was that I could be made more or less likely to vote for Rick Perry based on information about the content of his religious beliefs. Not only do I believe that this position was rational, I strongly suspect that my position is shared by a large number of other voters.

It's nice to learn that you are a theist who believes in the efficacy of prayer to affect the weather. Lots of Americans, however, do not. Similarly, lots of American would disagree with your opinion that "a person who prays ... is more, and not less, likely to make sure that his neighbors ... are safe and secure." (Curiously, you describe this statement as a "fact". Perhaps you have some evidence in mind? I would be open to hearing it.) So given that lots of people do not agree with your theism, while many others do (but would nonetheless become upset if, e.g., the prayers went to the wrong deity), why shouldn't American be able to query the nature and extent of the religious beliefs of those running for public office? (Actually, I can imagine practical objections to my position based on the policy expressed by the no-religious-test-for-office rule, but I don't think that your response -- noting that Francis Beckwith and Rick Perry are both theists -- addresses my point.)

Or, to use your example, if all you knew about Acme Airlines' maintenance program was that the maintenance chief prayed over each engine before take-off, wouldn't you find it legitimate for passengers to be interested in the nature and extent of his religious beliefs? After all, if I discovered that he believed that the airplane flew by faith alone and that the concept of metal fatigue was "just a theory", I'd be taking a bus. Wouldn't you?

Posted by: Brennan | Sep 4, 2011 11:44:29 AM