America Needs Religious Politicians

America needs religious politicians. With a few notable exceptions, it doesn't have any.

Our country is not lacking in political opportunists who exploit religion for their own purposes. On both the right and left, candidates and elected officials see religion as a tool intended to attract voter support or as a prop intended to add weight to a campaign brochure. The result is that references to religion in a political campaign are more likely to generate contempt than respect.

Think, for example, of Republicans who throughout their careers have been supportive of a woman's right to choose. Then, when contemplating a run for President, they reconsider, assuring us that their change of position is sincere and flows from heartfelt prayer and religious contemplation. The decision, of course, almost always has little to do with internal religious struggle and much to do with winning the support of "values voters" who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage. But the presidential wannabes insist on maintaining the charade, thereby casting religion and sincere believers of every stripe in a negative light.

Think too of the Democrats who care little about religion and have no discernible religious beliefs or practices. Nonetheless, they know that more Americans attend religious services in a single week than attend football games in an entire year; therefore, they rush to identify themselves (usually in a fuzzy, platitudinous way) with religious values, a belief in God and perhaps a house of worship. If they are elected, these matters are promptly put aside, at least until the next campaign.

When pushed on vague or inconsistent religious beliefs, our politicians often evade the question or take refuge in the claim that "religion is a private matter." This is the great irony of our political culture: We want political leaders who care about religion, but, drawing on our traditions of church-state separation, we allow them to escape the implication of their own religious declarations.

When I say that I would like to see some religious politicians, what I have in mind are politicians who do the following:

  1. Are religiously observant in their personal lives.

  • Are prepared to discuss religion thoughtfully in the public square and to share how their personal religious beliefs have shaped their values and political positions. (It is a misunderstanding of the First Amendment to suggest that we are prohibited from referring to religion in conversations on public policy; failing to do so impoverishes the debate and is a disservice to our democracy.)
  • Understand the need to articulate positions in the language of American civic values, even when religion was a significant factor in determining those positions. (It is surely appropriate for theology to influence political thinking, but in our pluralistic democracy one should not expect others to accept arguments made primarily on theological grounds. One who cannot translate his beliefs into the common parlance of American democracy should not be serving in public life.)
  • Are firm in their religious convictions while avoiding the extremist rhetoric of the right and the moral self-righteousness of the left. (Think Rick Santorum in the first category and Jimmy Carter in the second.)
  • I would not expect -- or even want -- a large number of our leaders to fall into the category of "religious politician." I cherish the diversity that has served American society so well, and, in any case, I am realistic. In-depth religious thinking is a rare commodity in the political world. Nonetheless, we see it from time to time, and Governor Mario Cuomo, Governor Sam Brownback, Senator John Danforth, Representative Frank Wolf and the late Senator Mark Hatfield all exemplify, in my view, the characteristics mentioned above. I suspect that America would be stronger, more just and more caring if we had a few dozen more like them.