Politicians’ Religious Beliefs Are Generally Fair Game - WhoWhatWhy

Politicians’ Religious Beliefs Are Generally Fair Game

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The GOP candidates’ struggle to outdo each other in appealing to Christian fundamentalists continues. Rick Santorum, the current favorite of this constituency, topped his previous plays with his remark that John F. Kennedy’s famed 1960 speech on the importance of a separation between religion and government “makes me throw up.”

The separation of church and state is not some abstract notion, nor is it a means of oppressing people. It very reasonably keeps people from imposing their religious beliefs on other people. These are not beliefs that can be objectively measured or empirically tested—like, say, the hypothesis that public spending can affect employment levels. Religious beliefs may be comforting or helpful to some people, but no matter how deeply felt, they can have no place in a rational, shared system of managing outcomes for all Americans.

Yet because of the current political climate in this country, we’re not supposed to talk about any of that. The other day, the New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow got in a little trouble. He tweeted an admittedly rude and rather inappropriate remark about an eccentric element of Mitt Romney’s faith—the belief that wearing special underwear literally protects the person from harm.

Blow was hit with a barrage of criticism, and quickly apologized—which makes sense given the contextual irrelevancy and vulgarity of the comment. As a proud single parent, he was responding to a remark of Romney’s implying that single-parenting is per se bad for kids, and he should have stuck to that point in his rejoinder.

But that doesn’t mean that Romney’s avowed Mormon faith is incidental to his view on single-parenting or that a candidate’s religion is always out of bounds in political discourse.  There are a number of valid questions that can be asked about practices of the Mormon Church, and their potential impact on policy decisions of a political leader of that persuasion.

One question would be about the effect of Mormon missionary work around the world, at a time when people of other faiths may strongly resent the presence of people trying to convert their children to a faith so clearly identified with American interests.

Another would concern the repeated, pernicious practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims—obviously without their permission and presumably against what would be their wishes. Stephen Colbert made this point when he tweeted: If Mormons Posthumously Baptize Holocaust Victims, I’ll Posthumously Circumcise Mormons

There’s no reason we can’t talk about these things. And plenty of good reasons we should talk about them.

Making fun of religious beliefs is intellectually pointless since such beliefs by definition are beyond rational argument. (“Faith” is what you proclaim when you have no objective evidence for a particular belief.) Yet there’s an inherent double standard in the way we chuckle about Scientologists and “Xenu” or various cults that bubble up before quickly disappearing, when one could argue that, empirically, all beliefs about miracles, supernatural interventions in the natural course of events, etc. are delusions designed to comfort us in times of trouble—or distract us from the recognition that if we act in concert we can make life better by and for ourselves.

At the same time, questioning religious belief systems in terms of how they affect other people is certainly legitimate—a lot more legitimate than the subtly racist rhetoric aimed at Barack Obama. Clearly, we don’t choose what race we are born into, or what nationality, or even what religion. However, we certainly do decide, as adults, the values and beliefs we live by—whether or not they match what we were taught as children.

The fact is, we shouldn’t ridicule or question people for attributes or circumstances that are beyond their control, and that certainly includes their ethnicity. For example, an ESPN writer was rightly fired recently for the mobile headline “Chink in the Armor,” about the Chinese-American basketball player Jeremy Lin.

But when someone consciously embraces a particular religion and set of tenets, then asks to be selected to run this country, those beliefs could be seen as relevant—for praise or criticism, or even humor. That’s part of a vigorous discussion, and central to freedom of speech. Also, those who seek public office in a country where declared religious beliefs are at or near the center of the discussion of values can, and should, expect scrutiny and even criticism of those beliefs.


Now, Stephen Colbert is a humorist, so he has special license, but, really, isn’t the practice of posthumously baptizing those who would not have wished to be baptized something that can be discussed? And, given that Romney allots a substantial portion of his income to the Church of Latter Day Saints, why is it not okay to examine this practice and wonder what it says about prospective President Romney? If a leading candidate was a Muslim of any stripe, or, say, a Hasidic Jew, we would expect close scrutiny of what those beliefs entailed and what they might say about the values and likely actions of a future president (concerning, for example, the reproductive rights of women). Because if one’s religious beliefs have nothing to do with practical matters—well, why have them? And why tell others about them? And why reference them, explicitly or implicitly, when one seeks votes?

And what of the practice of other public figures—athletes, entertainers, etc.—choosing to openly draw attention to their beliefs? These figures inject their faith into the public arena as part of their brand. Does that make them fair game for criticism of those very beliefs? If so, should only those who explicitly draw attention to their beliefs face scrutiny? What about people who proclaim belief in religions that explicitly discriminate against other citizens – as official policy of the Church of Latter Day Saints did against blacks until 1978 and as the Catholic Church and other religious institutions do today against gay people? If a person’s faith has consequences that impact other people, why should that faith be out of bounds for public discussion?

Some of the online criticism of Charles Blow, an African-American, came from those who couched their protests in an overtly racist manner. Why do those critics think that skepticism toward religious beliefs is somehow worse than racism—or than the kinds of comments routinely directed at those from other backgrounds and countries that don’t fit into an America-centric, Christian-centric world view? What about the ways in which at least some of the Republican candidates implicitly but very obviously take swipes at those who are different through constant references to “American values” and “Christian values”?

Is the idea of special non-armored undergarments providing protection more or less credible than believing that one goes to heaven and is provided with sensual pleasures, including 72 virgins? Or the attitude toward the deity that prescribes the yarmulkes and tzitzit worn by religious Jews? Or ostentatiously displayed crosses, or anything else of this nature? Can someone’s belief in anthropogenic Climate Change more legitimately be attacked or ridiculed than faith in a God—who believers insist— would never let environmental harm come to his chosen flock (unless and until he deemed such punishment appropriate)?

In fact, isn’t the battle over religious beliefs and the secular practices they influence a central part of our political debate today? Isn’t evidence of anti-scientific, superstitious views a legitimate consideration when we choose whom we want to administer scientific funds, set broad educational policy, or consider whether to go to war with people who have different cultures, values and ideas?

If so, how can we not talk openly—even critically—about religious beliefs in choosing our leaders?

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8 responses to “Politicians’ Religious Beliefs Are Generally Fair Game”

  1. Guest says:

    To this day it puzzles me why the GOP officials delayed the winner take all Texas primary (152 delegates) when Rick Santorum was up by 25 points in that state.

    During the Michigan contest Romney outspent Santorum by a factor of 42 to 1. He managed to eke out a victory in a state where his father, George Romney governed. (Should that not have been both a red flag and a barometer of the strength of the two candidates?)

    It is interesting to consider that President Obama won the Catholic vote 50 to 48. If Santorum had been the nominee, that demographic would have displayed significantly different results. I would assert that the GOP leadership engineered their own defeat.

    The only Catholic contender other than Senator Paul Ryan
    in the history of the GOP was Vice Presidential nominee
    Congressman William E. Miller in 1964. Since the inception of the
    Grand Old Party they have yet to nominate a Catholic for President.

  2. Alonzo8888 says:

    Rick Santorum is nothing but an argument in favor of going back to the days when one of the requirements, albeit unwritten, for becoming President was being Protestant

  3. Ricksha1 says:

    Fanatics like Santorum make me vomit.

    I fervently hope that he ends up in the dustbin of history, if not sooner.

  4. Ricksha1 says:

    “As president of the United States, do you believe that you would be an
    instrument of God’s will?”

    W. did so believe and he got away with it. Nobody publically tok him to taks for this bit of pretentious arrogance.

  5. Nomad says:

    Related to this topic I have composed a list of questions any politician should answer if (and only if) he/she chooses to use his religion as a credential. Normally this wouldn’t be necessary because until the last few elections, a candidates private beliefs would have been considered relatively unimportant. Now it’s a selling point.
    So, in this case, the voters have every right to know how those religious beliefs may impact on the decision making of the future president. For example, if he thinks Israel is a special nation and sacred,  (more than any other nation)it would affect foreign policy. I should know that before I vote.  It’s a pity that we have come this far. 

    Anyway, here’s my list. 

  6. d b says:

         Generally speaking, it’s rather bad manners to make fun of and riducule someone’s religious beliefs, especially if they’re deeply felt.  But one that other person says “I will impose those beliefs on you” then he’s opened himself to opposition and ridicule. 
          Rick Santorum, unlike John Kennedy, has said that as President he will follow the dictates of the Catholic Church.  Has Rick thereby authorized me to attack the errors and weaknesses of the Catholic Church when engaging in political discussions?   I think he has.

  7. Richard Johns says:

    I agree with your central thesis, that the religious beliefs of political candidates ought to be open for public discussion, including praise and criticism.  As you point out, these religious views are in many cases relevant to policy positions.

    However, I disagree with one of your premises, that religious beliefs are, “by definition” outside the realm of rational argument.  The fact is that religious beliefs are rather a mixed bag, some much more rational than others.  Consider miracles, for example, which you mention.  There is no cogent empirical argument that miracles cannot *ever* happen.  The most than can be argued, by Hume for example, is that the actual reports of miracles we have don’t involve the best kind of evidence one could hope for (e.g. the most reliable witnesses).  Claims of miracles are also rather a mixed bag, some being obvious frauds, others apparently well founded.

    You’re right that it difficult to include religious arguments in discussions about public policy, but it’s not because the arguments are irrational.  Rather, it’s because the arguments use religious premises (e.g. about the nature of God, human nature, etc.) that are not widely shared.  But this problem isn’t peculiar to religious arguments.  For example, many policies are supported by utilitarian premises that some of us find immoral.  It’s a general problem, in democracies like ours, that we disagree with each others’ premises.  Religious premises are just one example of that.

    (It isn’t possible, by the way, to support meaningful policies using only neutral premises, i.e. ones shared by almost all people.  Such neutral premises are too weak — they contain too little information about human flourishing, moral truth, etc.)

  8. knowbuddhau says:

    Bravo!  This is exactly what I’m always on about: the political power of mythology.

    And that’s the analytical framework I suggest we use: comparative mythology.  Years ago, when I learned that the Power of Myth-master himself, Joseph Campbell, lectured for decades for the State Dept’s Foreign Service Institute, I assumed that all I had to do was report it, and widespread understanding of Campbell’s work would do the rest.

    Look how wrong you can be!  I’m stunned, appalled, disappointed, depressed.  I assumed far greater appreciation of the power of myth in general, and its political power in particular.

    What TF is the political power of myth?  To bring into being the world stage on which we’re all playing our notorious parts.  Believe it or not, even science has mythology.  Campbell famously described mythology thus: “mythology is other people’s religions.”  What’s religion?  “Misunderstood mythology.”

    The religious beliefs of candidates (esp. for high office) bring into being the world in which they believe themselves to be acting.

    Without questioning the validity of a candidate’s personal religious beliefs, we can analyze and discuss what such beliefs mean for the polity.

    Allow me to demonstrate.  I offer this as an example, a conversation starter, not the revealed truth.

    Let’s talk about the “herd mentality, and especially the herd
    mentality vis-à-vis Israel.”  What exactly is it, where does it come
    from, what powers it?

    To answer, we begin by asking, where does reality come from?  How does the stage on which world events play out come into being?

    From our beliefs about how the cosmos is composed; how it functions;
    and the proper role of being human in it.  In other words, the world
    stage comes into being by virtue of the power of our myths.

    A myth is not a lie; a myth is a metaphor, an image by which we make
    sense of events.  There are several subordinate functions of a fully
    functioning mythology.

    The first is to awaken in the individual a sense of awe and wonder at
    the tremendous mystery that is the cosmos at large.  The second is to
    present a model of the cosmos, addressing the why’s and how’s of
    physical reality.  The third is the function we call religion: to
    organize and maintain something like a cosmic country club for the
    benefit of its members.  The fourth is to guide humans through the
    course of life, providing a path from the cradle to the grave with all
    the dignity and grace befitting being human.

    Thus, to understand US-Israel relations, we have to look at the world
    view of the people who embody the process.  What is the common
    mythology of American and Israeli policy-makers?

    In their world view, the cosmos itself is a construct, an artifact, a
    creation of the cosmic master-engineer, typically imaged as a bearded
    white male on a celestial throne.  The whole cosmos, they believe, comes
    into being by the kinetic force and fiat of god’s will acting on
    formerly inert and stupid matter.

    Since the cosmos itself is the construct of the cosmic engineer, it
    follows that it’s his private property, to dispense with as he sees
    fit.  In other words, the cosmos is imaged in political terms.  The
    “king of kings,” Lord and Master of the Universe, and so on, are some of
    the phrases used for their god.

    Thus it is easy to see how the actions of human political actors
    become conflated with the will of the almighty master of the universe.

    If one believes that Israel and only Israel, alone in the cosmos, is
    the sole repository of divinity, the sole concern of the King of Kings,
    then it follows that one would have to have access to the one and only
    true Holy Land to get one’s own individual soul into Heaven.

    The “herd mentality, and especially the herd mentality vis-à-vis
    Israel” comes from this self-serving desire.  In a political cosmos, the
    most important factor determining one’s access to Heaven is not the
    content of one’s character; it’s the relationship in which one stands to
    the throne of Heaven.  So one must align oneself with the proper dogma
    of the proper church as preached by the proper authorities on god’s
    revealed will, or risk going to hell forever and ever, there to suffer
    unimaginable, unrelenting physical torment.

    The ploy here should be obvious by now.  By unilaterally claiming to
    be god’s own landlord here on earth, Israel’s political leadership is
    able to corner the market on the most sought after commodity in all the
    cosmos: access to Heaven.

    By threatening the existence of Israel, access to Heaven itself (for people who believe in this world view) is threatened.

    That’s where the “herd mentality” comes from: individual terror of
    going to hell forever and ever, amen.  In order to question the hype
    regarding Israel, one must be willing to brave the gates of (this world
    view’s projection of) Hell itself.

    For people who fear for their immortal souls if they don’t get in
    line behind AIPAC’s crazed version of Israel, making life a living Hell
    for anyone who steps out of line is the epitome of the Good Life.

    It’s what (their idea of) god would do.

    In such a way, we can examine the mythologies of candidates without getting into whether or not their view is “right.”

    Likewise, the myth I’d love to see WhoWhatWhy really go after is the big one: the myth of American Exceptionalism.  It’s the ultimate power source of our empire.