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What is fair game to discuss in the media about a candidate’s religion?

If a Candidate Talks Faith, We Should Talk About Everything

By | May 1, 2012

(UpperCut Images/Getty)

I loathe subjectivity and relativity. I am with Plato in wanting to make mathematics my touchstone for knowledge. And yet, sometimes a seemingly simple question proves remarkably difficult to answer. Moreover, giving an answer forces you into pastures that you don’t much care for. Speaking to the question of how much it is permissible—perhaps even obligatory—to bring a politician’s religion into the public arena, seems to direct one towards multiple answers. And they all depend on the place and time.

In Europe (possibly Poland excepted), and in other English-speaking parts of the world (America excepted), by and large a politician’s religion is his or her own business and stays that way. For example, when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister of Canada—from 1968 to 1984, with one short break—his religious beliefs were totally and absolutely his own. His policies both public and personal were liberal in the extreme. He is famous for saying that the “state should stay out of the bedrooms of the nation,” and for supporting the legalization of abortion and the decriminalization of homosexual activity. After his marriage broke up, it was known that he was having an affair with a woman in Newfoundland and that he fathered a daughter in that (non-sanctioned) relationship. His religion was never discussed or considered relevant. It therefore came as a considerable surprise at his death to find that, all of his life, he had been a deeply committed Roman Catholic. Had it been known, I suspect the general reaction would have been that of Trudeau himself—tant pis. That’s too bad. Of course, there is an insolence in French that is not conveyed in translation. That was Trudeau’s style and captures the general sentiment: Don’t ask; it’s none of your business.

America, of course, is different. Religion is very much part of the public square. So much so, in fact, that it is just as well we have the First Amendment to try to set some ground rules and stop the worst excesses. People running for public office are expected, frankly, to be religious—especially as one moves up to the federal level—and they are expected to talk about their religion in public. And they do, as was shown in the debates by the candidates running for the Republican nomination for president this election cycle. This being so, it is surely “fair game” to talk some about a politician’s religion—whether or not you think (as I do) that it would be better if we all were much more like the Canada of Trudeau. But being like Canada would not only be a matter of not talking about your religion in public but—as was very much the case for Trudeau—not letting your religious beliefs dominate your thinking and actions in the public realm. (The present prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, is surely an evangelical, but he has made it very clear that he won’t touch abortion or gay marriage, both of which are legal in Canada.) Yet since it is clear that religious beliefs do have some effect on thought and action—think George W. Bush—it is open and proper to talk in America about a politician’s religion.

But how fair is “fair” and how game is “game”? I think it important not to be hypocrites. We talk and judge prematurely much more than we like to admit. We should not pretend that we would never vote for Mitt Romney because he is sly and devious when really we are withholding our vote because we are suspicious that he wears magic Mormon underpants. My personal feeling is that once a politician brings religious beliefs into the public square, the floodgates have opened. Then, to change metaphors, everything is on the table. In particular, you can talk about what a person believes and if their beliefs correspond exactly to those of their Church. (Is a practicing Catholic politician really committed qua personal religion to abolishing artificial birth control?) You can talk about whether their beliefs and those of their religion would lead to political decisions and if not, why not? Are they, like Trudeau, able to separate the two—and do you think them phony in so doing? And—this is the controversial bit—whether the religious beliefs are so far outside your orbit that you could not imagine ever voting for someone who held them? Could you really vote for even the best-intentioned Scientologist? I will be quite blunt—I could not. I have trouble watching movies in which they are acting.

If you think as I do, especially about the possibility of not voting for someone on the basis of their beliefs alone, you have a moral obligation to study and learn about those beliefs. It is not enough not to vote for a Jew simply because they celebrate Passover or wear something on their head in synagogue. You have to find out why they feel this way. It is the same with the Mormons and the undies. Prima facie this practice seems to me absolutely lunatic. But it would be morally wrong of me not to vote for someone on this basis unless and until I had done a real study of the subject. Would I feel the same way about a Jew wearing a yarmulke, or a Muslim woman wearing a hijab?  

As far as I am concerned, in America, it is fair game to discuss anything and everything about a politician’s religion—but only when we understand we have a responsibility to really understand the faith in question.

Michael Ruse directs the program in history and philosophy of science at Florida State University, and contributes to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog. His latest book is Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science.

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