Religion and Politics
Remarks of the Honorable Lee H. Hamilton
Christian Theological Seminary
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
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?
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
-- There was great interest in Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate for the
vice presidency. He suggested that morality cannot be maintained without
-- 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
-- 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
And think of some of the other political issues of the day that are influenced by
-- 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
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
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.
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
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
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
So religion's political impact, constantly evolving, depends upon how people
apply religious values to contemporary life.
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.
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.
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
While some religious groups have been very effective in the political arena, most
lack the resources and political competence necessary to influence national politics.
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
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
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.
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
This deeply-rooted ambivalence about the public role of religion limits its
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
-- the role religion has played in suppressing advances in science and secular
-- 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
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
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
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
-- 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
one-third want government money to go to the Nation of Islam or the Church of
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
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
Fifth, what is the best way for the government to support faith-based
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
-- 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
-- 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.