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Religion and Politics Remarks of the Honorable Lee H. Hamilton Christian Theological Seminary Indianapolis, Indiana April 23, 2001 I speak to you today neither as a preacher nor as a practicing politician. I am a lay person who practiced politics for three and a half decades. While I believe my faith was helpful to me in my work as a politician, I was never comfortable posing as a preacher or as an exemplary Christian. Indeed, about half way through my political career, I began to refuse opportunities to appear in the pulpit. I made the decision to reduce, if not end, my role as a lay preacher for two reasons. First, I did not want people to confuse my sermons with political speeches or my political speeches with sermons. Second, I did not want people to think I was using their congregation for political gain. Like many Americans, I am suspicious of politicians who profess to be very religious and suspicious of politicians who are not religious at all. I have some sympathy with the common feeling that politicians who speak the loudest about religion are more often pharisee than prophet. I remember the comment of Edward Gibbon that while for philosophers all religions are false and for common people they are all true, for politicians all religions are useful. I am also aware that in most surveys politicians rank last among the professions in honesty, integrity, and dependability. That point was driven home to me by a letter I received from a constituent a few years ago. "Mr. Hamilton," the writer began, "if you believe in Jesus Christ our savior you'll know that when he comes back and passes judgment on this world, Hell is going to be pretty full of congressmen, senators, and anybody else in politics." Hell must be full of politicians... Politicians like polls, but I don't think I'll be polling you this morning on your agreement with that statement. With that by way of background, I will respond to the two main questions you have asked me to address: First, What is the influence of religion on American politics? 1 Second, What can religion contribute to the political arena? I. What is the political influence of religion? 1. Religion's political influence is considerable First, my view is that religious persons and institutions have considerable influence on our nation's political life. Religion is a major concern of voters and politicians. Consider what an important role faith played in the 2000 presidential election. -- Both George W. Bush and Al Gore are religious men who have called themselves born-again Christians. Gore attended divinity school, and Bush credits a religious awakening with transforming his life. Both candidates invoked God frequently during the campaign. -- Bush named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher and spoke at Bob Jones University. -- There was great interest in Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate for the vice presidency. He suggested that morality cannot be maintained without religion. -- People's religious views and affiliations had a significant influence on their choice for president. While Catholics split their vote evenly between the two candidates, three out of four Jews voted for Gore and three out of five Protestants voted for Bush. Secular Americans supported Gore by a 2 to 1 margin, but most religious Americans voted for Bush. Since the election, religion and politics have continued to intersect in many ways. Bush has spurred renewed discussion of the role of religion in politics by: -- nominating John Ashcroft to be Attorney General (many opposed Ashcroft's nomination because of the influence of his religious beliefs on his political views); -- including only Christian prayers in his inauguration ceremony; -- restricting funding for groups that promote access to abortions overseas; -- and proposing to expand federal financing of religious institutions that perform social services. 2 And think of some of the other political issues of the day that are influenced by religion: -- Religious groups are deeply involved in public debates on school prayer, government funding of religious schools, abortion, and same-sex unions. -- Religious figures are leaders in the international movement to provide debt relief to poor nations. -- Many parts of the world are torn by religious strife, including the Middle East, South Asia, Nigeria, Sudan, Chechnya, and Indonesia. I am impressed that religion affects how people think about a wide range of political issues -- not just social issues, but also the environment, race, defense, foreign affairs, and the scope of government. Simply put, religious influence in politics is everywhere. Every politician must pay attention to religion and to religious institutions. Our presidents -- and many other politicians -- now routinely end their political speeches by saying "God bless America," or some other form of that blessing. Most Americans believe in the separation of church and state, but not in the separation of religion and politics. Benjamin Franklin would be pleased by the prominent role of religion in our public life. He spoke of the necessity of a "public religion" for the health of the republic. While we do not have a public religion -- the Constitution forbids it -- we do have a public ethic of religious tolerance and a proud tradition of religious influence on politics. 2. Channels of religious influence Religion influences politics through several channels -- through religious individuals, through religious congregations, and through voluntary associations formed by religious people. Individuals: Religious individuals, motivated by the strong conviction of their beliefs, can and do contribute constructively to the public dialogue. They often bring an unmatched moral vision and fervor to the political arena. From George Washington, who believed that the success of the republic depended upon virtuous citizens, to Abraham Lincoln, whose concern during the Civil War was to be on God's side (he did not presume that God was on his side), to Rosa Parks, whose faith encouraged her to insist upon equal treatment in public facilities, to the Pope, who urges us to do more for the poor -- religious people can prod us to create a more just and virtuous society. 3 Congregations: Religious congregations, driven by their leaders and their members, frequently influence politics. It is through religious congregations that we know the positions of: -- the Catholic Church on abortion; -- black churches on U.S. assistance for Africa; -- Southern Baptists on gay rights; -- Methodists on gambling; -- and Lutherans on physician-assisted suicide. Interchurch organizations, like the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and the National Association of Evangelicals, have each at one time or another been influential voices in the political debate. For instance, the National Council of Churches provided strong and consistent leadership on behalf of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and the Catholic bishops issued powerful and thought-provoking statements criticizing the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. Voluntary associations: Religious people also influence politics through voluntary associations -- or, if you prefer, special interest groups. These groups are formed when religious individuals join together with like-minded people to express their views on public issues and to lobby for certain public policies. I am old enough even to remember the Women's Christian Temperance Union. I have also seen in action dozens of current groups -- such as the Christian Coalition, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Christian Leadership, Evangelicals for Social Action, and Bread for the World. These groups bring to the political arena passion, money, media savvy, organizational skill, and drive. The leaders of some of these organizations have not just a strong belief in God, but also a powerful conviction that they are fighting the devil, a very clearly defined enemy. On occasion, I have had the discomforting experience of being the devil in their eyes. With the growing importance of social issues in American politics, religious leaders and organizations will continue to play an important role in our public life. 4 3. Historical role of religion in politics Religion has been a part of politics throughout our nation's history. Our religious heritage is one of our nation's great strengths. Religion played an important role in the establishment of the United States. -- Many of the first colonists came to America in search of religious freedom. -- The Declaration of Independence states that certain unalienable human rights originate from God. -- The First Amendment to the Constitution establishes the separation of church and state and protects the freedom of religious expression. In the centuries since our nation's founding, religious institutions have been at the forefront of many political movements. Religious groups created and sustained movements to promote the abolition of slavery, women's rights, prison reform, child welfare, worker protections, alcohol prohibition, civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and international peace. During the 1960s and 1970s, the political landscape of American religion shifted. Several mainline Protestant denominations moved to the left and issued statements that resembled liberal political party platforms. But most evangelicals moved in the opposite direction. Their conservative political activism, led by the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, was sparked by the social changes in American life and the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Catholics were pulled in different directions at once, moving to the right on many social issues and to the left on some international and economic issues. Jews and religious black Americans remained among the most liberal groups in the country. Today there are still sharp political divisions among religious groups in America, but many are overcoming their differences to pursue shared political goals. Religious groups now work together across denominational lines on issues ranging from religious freedom and debt relief for poor nations to the sexual exploitation of women and children. So religion's political impact, constantly evolving, depends upon how people apply religious values to contemporary life. 5 4. Constraints on religion's political influence Despite the long tradition of religion influencing American politics, many religious people feel that their voice is not heard in the political debate. Several factors limit their political reach. Religious diversity First, religious Americans speak with many voices. Religious belief in America is very diverse. -- While more than 80 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christian, there is great diversity among American Christians -- both between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants. There is no predominant view among Christians on most, if not all, of the major issues in national life. -- As a percentage of the U.S. population, there are decreasing numbers of Christians and increasing numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and members of other religions. More than 20 percent of new congregations established over the past decade were Muslim, Mormon, Jewish, or Bahai. -- Some religious groups -- such as evangelical Christians -- tend to be conservative, while others -- such as Jews -- tend to be liberal. -- Religious conservatives tend to emphasize the importance of individual morality and responsibility, while religious liberals tend to emphasize the importance of helping the poor. With this tremendous diversity among religious Americans, it is not surprising that their voices are more often a cacophony than a chorus. Political competence Second, many religious institutions do not excel at politics. Most religious groups are handicapped in politics because they have more important things to do: they are generally more concerned with spiritual life than with the problems of society. Jerry Falwell has said that preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul-winners. While some religious groups have been very effective in the political arena, most lack the resources and political competence necessary to influence national politics. 6 In case you have not noticed, money talks in politics, and big money screams. Few religious groups can afford financially to play big-time politics. Religious groups often have difficulty acting with the speed necessary to influence the fast-paced political arena. I remember several denomination resolutions that were behind the policy curve. For instance, some were passed after the key congressional vote on the issue had been cast. The impact of religious institutions is diminished further when their political positions do not reflect the views of the institution's constituency. On several occasions, I did not know -- and could not find -- a single member of a denomination who agreed with -- or even knew about -- a denomination resolution. I concluded, in those instances, that the resolutions were issued from the top without grass-roots input or support from below. And I was puzzled on occasion because the views of some religious groups seemed to be contradictory -- on abortion and capital punishment, for example. To be effective in politics, religious institutions must have both compassion and political competence. They often have the former, but they do not always have enough of the latter. Public ambivalence Third, the influence of religious institutions is limited because Americans are ambivalent about giving religion a public role. Most Americans have faith in faith, and believe there would be less crime, greed, and immorality if people were more religious. They also believe that religion has a place in our public life. Yet Americans do not want politicians to impose a specific faith or religious view upon them. Nor do they want government to tell them how to worship. Americans firmly support the First Amendment. They believe in the separation of church and state. They certainly do not want government to interfere in the freedom of church, synagogue, or mosque, or to promote one religion over another. While nearly three-quarters of Americans support some form of school prayer, a majority prefers a moment of silence to a prayer specific to any religion. Americans welcome the involvement of religious groups in some public issues, but not in others. 7 Some, for example, support efforts by religious institutions to promote civil rights and secure social justice. Others do not. Some want religious groups to speak out on abortion and sexuality. Others do not. This deeply-rooted ambivalence about the public role of religion limits its political reach. II. What can religion contribute to politics? So, what can religion contribute to politics? Many people believe that religion has no application to politics, or, worse, that religion does more harm than good in the political arena. View 1: Religion does not apply to politics Those who believe that religion does not apply to politics point to the fundamental difference between the absolute divine and the compromising politician. -- They argue that religion is grounded in certainty and truths, while politics addresses issues that are not clear-cut. -- They claim that religion lifts our eyes to lofty ideals, while politics deals with messy everyday problems. -- And they say that religion is private, while politics is public. For people holding this view of politics and religion, politicians must leave behind their religious beliefs when they enter the political arena. View 2: Religion is harmful to politics The second, more negative view is that religion is not simply irrelevant to politics, but is actually harmful to it. Advocates of this view note the horrible consequences that have resulted when some political leaders have championed their religious beliefs. They point to: -- the countless wars that have been based on religious conflict; -- the support some religious institutions have given to inquisition and persecution; 8 -- the role religion has played in suppressing advances in science and secular knowledge; -- and the appeals political leaders have made to religion to justify witch hunting, racial segregation, and slavery. Holders of this critical view of the impact of religion on politics say, as the cynical joke goes, "Our Father who art in heaven, stay there". My view: Religion benefits politics, within limits My view -- and I assume yours, too -- is different from both of these views. While there are important limits to what religion can offer politics, I believe religion can be enormously helpful in the political arena. 1. Religion can teach the values of democracy Religion can make its greatest contribution to politics by teaching the values of representative democracy -- tolerance, responsibility toward others, and commitment to the common good. Religion can encourage civility in political discourse and respect for other people and their views. It can prod us to work together to achieve our political goals. In an era of heated political partisanship, religion can help us overcome our differences by encouraging us to rise above them. Religion can foster cooperation by reminding us that none of us has all of the truth, but many of us have some of it. It can teach us that no individual -- or political party -- is wise enough to solve our national problems. It can call us to remember, in the rough and tumble of political debate, the words of Isaiah: "Come let us reason together". That precept is helpful in the political arena -- where negotiation and compromise are essential. Religion can remind us that we are fallible. The New Testament instructs us to look first for the log in our own eye, and only then to the speck in our brother's eye. The recognition that we are fallible is central to both religion and democracy. Justice Learned Hand said that the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right. 9 The great threats to freedom in the 20th century -- Nazism and communism -- tried to stamp out religion. Religion can teach us to reach out beyond our personal interest with a constructive and compassionate concern for others. It can encourage us to care for the welfare and dignity of all people, including our enemies, and to seek for them justice and freedom. Religion can help provide a moral framework for political debate. It can remind us that public decisions often involve and reflect moral values. It can teach us about the sanctity of life, and give us a special understanding of fundamental political concepts -- like human rights and equality -- by teaching us that each of us is sacred as a child of God. Religion can give us a sense of perspective, helping us to separate the trivial and inconsequential from the serious and important. It can remind us that, in the words of Isaiah, "nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are counted as the dust on the scales," and that there are more important things than the morning headlines of the New York Times. 2. Religion can inspire commitment to political causes Religion can also contribute to politics by serving as a source of inspiration and motivation for our commitment to political causes. Religion can encourage us to give a voice to the voiceless, fight for justice and equality, assist the poor, and focus not on ideology but on how public policies affect individuals. It can be a prod to inclusion and national self-examination. My view, I think consistent with the tenets of my faith, is that the politician's job is to: -- help meet the needs of people and strengthen families; -- help provide stability and economic opportunity for every citizen; -- promote a broad sense of responsibility and community across the nation; -- and strive for justice in society, and peace in the world. 10 By reminding us of our common humanity, religion can encourage us to work together to meet our national challenges and further international peace. Religious institutions excel at bridging differences among people and cultures. For instance, religious groups have helped to expand contact between Americans and Chinese. Religion can provide hope -- even during times when hope comes hard. Religion often helps to sustain people suffering political persecution. Some of the most courageous resistors of Hitler were religious Christians and Jews. The Catholic Church has been a source of great hope for many people living under communist rule. Religious people of all kinds try their very best to apply the teachings of their faith to the complex political, economic, and social problems of the day. They enliven and enrich the public dialogue and, overall, contribute to the process of building consensus in our representative democracy. Good and sincere people of faith disagree on many public issues. For instance, some parents of seriously ill children believe that their faith instructs them to refuse medical treatment even if the children may die without it. Others believe that their faith tells them that nothing is more important than the preservation of human life. In this case, as in other cases, there is a deep conflict between two opposing principles -- the free exercise of religion and the sanctity of life. That conflict is not easy to resolve, but it should be debated in the public sphere. The diversity and vigor of the wide range of religious voices in the public dialogue enhances our society and strengthens our political system. 3. Limits and risks Yet there are also limits and risks to the political influence of religion. Religion cannot provide the answers to many public policy questions. It cannot tell us whether to raise or lower taxes, or whether to privatize Social Security, or whether to spend more on national defense. Most public policy decisions involve choices to spend a little more or a little less on a problem. These are not usually decisions with profound religious dimensions. Religion can only give us values and guidelines to help us make public policy decisions. Religious belief can, on occasion, stifle the democratic process -- for instance, when people use claims of religious faith to justify with certitude specific positions on complex public policy issues. People do not serve our democracy well when they insist 11 that God is on their side of a particular issue, or that someone who disagrees with them is godless, sinful, or immoral. A few years ago in the House we had a Member who was a person of unquestionably strong faith. He attended a Christian college, earned a Master's of Divinity, and served as an ordained minister. He worked for seven years at a church- sponsored children's home, and served as a missionary overseas. Yet he was strongly attacked by a prominent national religious organization for being un-Christian because of votes he cast on the congressional budget and school funding. Such intolerance of different political viewpoints undermines our democracy by shutting off debate and leaving no room for compromise. It ignores the requirement in a democracy to accord mutual respect to political adversaries and to refrain from ascribing evil motives to them. Religious groups must enter politics with tolerance, caution, and restraint -- recognizing that there are other people of good will who do not share their views. The deep public ambivalence about religion in politics places a special burden on them to tread carefully in the political arena and to respect the diversity of opinion in our democracy. One way for religious groups to enhance their political influence is to form partnerships with non-religious groups that share their political concerns. Such partnerships can help religious groups gain access to more political resources and expertise, and help to alleviate the concerns of people who are uncomfortable with religious political activism. Partnerships across denominational lines can also give greater clout to political lobbying. As in anything else, there is political strength in numbers. Religious groups also risk distraction from their spiritual mission when they become deeply involved in politics. Even though religious groups have a lot to contribute to the political process, their fundamental mission and character lie outside of politics. Religion allows us to grapple with the deepest mysteries of human life that neither politics nor science can address. Before stepping into the political arena, religious institutions must decide how important it is to influence politics. The choice to expend a lot of resources on political activity may carry a certain cost to the institution's religious mission and focus. 12 Conclusion So, to conclude: while there are limits and risks to religion's political influence, religion can enhance our democracy in innumerable and important ways. At its best, the leaven of religion in politics can make the exercise of power gentler and our vision of justice more profound. Religious people -- like you -- that value tolerance, civility, responsibility toward others, and the advancement of the common good can make a special contribution to American democracy. You can help to lift our personal and political sights, encouraging us to strive to become better individuals and shape a better society. I trust that you will continue to bring your religious faith and your personal convictions to the messy, untidy world of politics. The country will be the better for it. 13 Addendum: Thoughts on social service programs run by faith-based groups President Bush has proposed expanding government financing of social service programs run by faith-based organizations. The idea has considerable merit, but several questions come to my mind in considering the proposal. First, are religious groups effective in delivering social services? Do they get results? Many faith-based organizations do excellent work providing critical services to the underprivileged and the needy. All of us have heard wonderful success stories about religious groups providing social services to people and communities in need. But there is little evidence to tell us whether faith-based institutions provide social services more or less effectively than non-faith-based organizations. A religious context for the delivery of social services does not guarantee greater success. You and I have seen services delivered by faith-based groups inefficiently and ineffectively. Pouring more money into those operations would be poor public policy. Any policy to expand federal funding of religious groups should hold them to the same standards of effectiveness and accountability that apply to their secular counterparts. Second, does the proposal pass constitutional muster? Ensuring that any government support of religious groups adheres to the constitutional separation of church and state will be a major challenge. It will not be easy for institutions to maintain a clear separation between helping the needy and providing religious services. Remember that religious groups are in business not just to do social work but also to save souls. Whatever plan is adopted, we will be in for a long line of court cases to test its constitutionality. Third, will all religious groups that perform social service work be eligible to receive federal funding? Many religious groups are not held in high regard by the general population. Some of them may be considered cults; others may espouse offensive views. A recent survey found that while three-fourths of Americans support the general principle of providing federal funds to faith-based groups for social services, fewer than 14 one-third want government money to go to the Nation of Islam or the Church of Scientology. Should we allow public funds to go to these and other controversial or unpopular groups? If not, what standards should we use to decide which groups are eligible for aid? The government may be placed in the awkward -- and possibly unconstitutional -- position of making value judgments about the worthiness and moral character of various religious practices and beliefs. A related question is whether religious groups that discriminate in hiring practices should be eligible for government aid. Under current law, religious groups have an exemption from the civil rights laws that allows them to hire or fire people based on their religious beliefs. This exemption is justified on the grounds that religious institutions have a right to preserve their particular religious character. But should we allow federal money to go to institutions that discriminate based on religious belief? Seventy-eight percent of Americans think we should not give government money to religious groups that hire only people of the same faith. Fourth, will government aid distract religious institutions from their spiritual mission? A church or synagogue or mosque could become so deeply drawn into lobbying for aid and providing social services that it neglects its primary concern with spiritual questions. Many religious leaders are skeptical of receiving government funding for this very reason. Fifth, what is the best way for the government to support faith-based organizations? Direct federal funding is one way. Indirect financing -- for instance, through tax incentives -- is another. President Bush's proposal includes both approaches. He proposes expanding tax deductions for charitable contributions to encourage more people to give money to faith- based organizations and other charities. This approach avoids some of the potential constitutional pitfalls of direct funding, but it presents other problems: -- First, it may serve to subsidize existing charitable donations without encouraging substantial additional giving to faith-based groups. -- Second, it does not ensure that money goes to programs that are effective or accountable. 15 -- And third, it does not ensure that money goes to programs in poor areas of the country that are most in need. So, the government must tread carefully in funding social service programs run by faith-based organizations. There are difficult practical problems of implementation and there are risks of constitutional abuses and unwanted effects. Some guidelines seem essential: -- Secular alternatives to services provided by faith-based groups should be available. -- The government should not subsidize religious practices or proselytizing. -- No restrictions should be placed on a group's religious practices outside the context of their social services. -- Government subsidies should finance program costs directly, rather than the general budget of religious institutions. -- Government grants should provide money for specific purposes, such as the purchase of equipment. While the issues raised by government support of faith-based organizations are serious and the implementation of any plan will be difficult, our caution should not deny the good that faith-based institutions can do in our communities. In general, Americans have more confidence in faith-based organizations to solve social problems than they do in the federal government, and, at least in theory, they like the idea of expanding the reach of religious social services. So I raise these concerns about government support for faith-based institutions, not to suggest that we should not do anything in this area of public policy, but rather to note some potential pitfalls and suggest how complex the issue is. 16
"Politics and Religion"