When we talk about religion and politics in this country, we tend to focus on how religious citizens engage the rest of the political community. A familiar maxim of our pluralist democracy holds that religious believers, in the interests of good citizenship, should translate their convictions into political arguments accessible to nonbelievers. But this effort needs to be a two-way street. Indeed, considering the turmoil of the recent campaign season, we might need to start paying more attention to how the political community engages religious citizens.
Surely the best way to nudge religious believers toward accessible political discourse is not by attacking their religious identities. Yet this is precisely what has been occurring. In California, where the passage of Proposition 8 brought an end to the state’s brief recognition of same-sex marriage, protesters immediately and vehemently targeted churches that supported the referendum. Such sentiments were openly incited during the run-up to the vote. One TV ad opposing Proposition 8 showed two Mormon missionaries entering a lesbian couple’s home and announcing their intention “to take away your rights.” The missionaries remove the couple’s wedding rings, ransack their house, and rip up their wedding certificate. “Members of the Mormon Church have given over $20 million to pass Proposition 8,” a narrator ominously intones. “Say ‘No!’ to a church taking over your government.”
This conflict did not begin and end with Proposition 8. The controversy over Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, featured widespread criticism of black liberation theology, even as a campaign of whispers—fueled by Internet rumors and McCain rally references to “Barack Hussein Obama”—sought to damage Obama by identifying him as a Muslim. Nor was the GOP immune to faith-based political liabilities. Sarah Palin encountered her own “pastor problem” when a video showing a visiting African minister at her Assembly of God church praying over her for protection from witchcraft brought charges of religious fanaticism. And during the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney countered opposition to his Mormonism with a speech pleading that “a person should not be elected...nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” When Romney nonetheless insisted, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind,” observers wondered why a plea for religious tolerance required a confession of faith.
What all these episodes have in common is the use of religious belief to define political legitimacy. Some commentators insist that such uses require us to make a stricter demarcation between the domains of religion and politics. When churches stake out positions on politically contested matters of public concern, and when candidates wrap themselves in a faith tradition in order to avoid the dreaded “Godless” label, it is only a matter of time, the argument goes, until religion skews our politics and politics taints our religion.
Such criticism is shortsighted. In truth, our religion-and-politics problem stems not from the blurring of lines between the two discourses, but rather from something like the opposite—from our failure to see just how salutary it can be to blur those lines in a highly religious but increasingly pluralistic democracy. The fact is, most Americans engage political questions through a religious worldview. Religious narratives shape our understanding of the world itself, including our pursuit of the common good, and any attempt to imagine a political discourse that does not account for the power of these narratives is bound to fail. While religious believers should try, as legal scholar Michael Perry explains, to make their positions intelligible to those who “speak a different religious or moral language,” they need in the first place to be welcomed as participants in our political discourse without having to jettison the convictions that animate their participation.
Our culture already has resources for this sort of conversation. Indeed, Catholic social thought exemplifies these resources—a religious tradition attempting to contribute to modernity’s understanding of the common good, and doing so in a voice that strives for intelligibility without sacrificing authenticity. To Catholics, for instance, the Gospels’ story of God choosing to dwell in man provides a coherent basis for valuing others as we value ourselves. This principle of solidarity has policy implications—enjoining us to care for the least among us—that are intelligible to all citizens even if the underlying theological claims are not. In just this way, religious concepts can serve as powerful tools of inclusiveness, simultaneously reminding believers of their foundational commitments while reassuring nonbelievers that the political relevance of those commitments rests on their usefulness, not their claim of divine authority.
In this way, religious beliefs and traditions can help to widen the circle of political participation. The politically motivated barbs aimed at the black liberation theology of Obama’s church, the Pentecostalism of Palin’s church, and the Mormonism of some Proposition 8 supporters, on the other hand, have done the opposite. They have narrowed the circle by urging voters to equate a political position with the perceived anti-Americanism, irrationality, or prejudice of political actors’ religious identities. Using religion to label some as beyond the pale means turning religion into a tool of political exclusion and marginalization. Even Mitt Romney’s effort to preempt anti-Mormon prejudice fed into this cycle, for in the course of trumpeting his Christian bona fides, he sent the subtle but unmistakable message that agnostics and atheists fit uneasily, at best, within his vision of an ecumenical—but completely religious—America.
This is not to suggest that a healthy role for religion in our political discourse will preclude disagreement, even vehement disagreement, over ideas inspired and shaped by religious convictions. Clashes over truth claims are inescapable, and truth claims rooted in religion are no exception. The concept of human dignity, for example, appeals to both ends of the political spectrum, yet on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, its popularity produces little consensus. But doing battle over the policy implications of religious ideals is one thing and blaming religious communities themselves is another altogether.
Some will ask, “Why should churches be immune from criticism of their policy positions when they themselves have deliberately jumped into the rough-and-tumble of political debate?” After all, it was no accident that so many Mormons contributed to the campaign for Proposition 8; their church encouraged them to do so. In the same vein, why shouldn’t prochoice protesters target the Catholic Church, particularly in dioceses where bishops have spoken out against prochoice political candidates receiving Communion? Critics will see a double standard.
My aim, though, is not to immunize churches against all criticism, but simply to highlight the dangers of using religious identity as a placeholder for political argument. To understand the danger posed by protests against specific churches, we need to understand the rationale for the protests. In most cases, the protesters’ objective is not to persuade church members; it is to persuade nonmembers to reject the views with which the church is associated. Such measures are more properly seen as public shaming; and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The lunch-counter sit-ins in the 1960s initially did little to change the minds of lunch-counter owners, but that was not their point.
Yet public shaming should give us pause when it is directed against churches. We encourage religious believers to translate their convictions into accessible political ideas because the alternative—a church making political appeals based on religious experience or authority—tends to foster mistrust, divisiveness, and exclusion. The public shaming of religious communities threatens the same sort of collateral damage, particularly since political actors tend to be most willing to “shame” those communities that are least powerful. Once the act of shaming Mormons over Proposition 8 is seen as part of our country’s long history of shaming Mormons in general, advertisements that show missionaries invading homes to rip up marriage licenses can be judged not only on their merits as an argument, but also in view of the damage they do to our hopes for an inclusive political community.
The challenge for all of us, finally, lies in acknowledging to each other that we are shaped by religion in significant ways, while not engaging each other as though we are defined only by religion. As the political theorist Harold Laski observed nearly a hundred years ago, “We are bundles of hyphens.” Barack Obama is a political figure, not a religious label. Supporters of Proposition 8 come from a variety of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and yes, most are religious. But they are also Americans. If we disagree with their choices in the voting booth, we should engage them as Americans, appealing to public values that may have been shaped in part by religious convictions. Let’s not demean their religious convictions just because we may disagree with the votes those convictions produce. In the next campaign season, if we’re going to condemn our fellow voters or our candidates for their refusal to uphold our values and ideals, let’s do it from the public square, not the church sanctuaries.
Continuing the conversation: Sex, Religion & Prop 8, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels