Segal: Politics, in good faith
Article VI of the Constitution ensures that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This clause limits Congress’s power, but many voters impose a de facto religious test on political candidates. Some want candidates to be upfront with their faith; others want them to keep religion out of the campaign entirely.
Confronting this question on the campaign trail, Sen. Ted Cruz commented on his faith: “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth.” Critics were quick to harp on Cruz for prioritizing his Christian faith over his Americanness. How would we feel if a Jew or Muslim, or for that matter a Catholic or Mormon, expressed a similar sentiment about their faith? There is an element of Christian privilege in this statement when a leading presidential contender can affirm that his faith trumps his commitment to the Constitution and we don’t question his patriotism.
That said, Cruz’s statement continued, “I’ll tell ya, there are a whole lot of people in this country that feel exactly the same way.” I believe Cruz voiced a sentiment that is widely felt among evangelical Christians — namely, that political correctness makes them feel persecuted for living their Christian faith openly.
Cruz and his followers have a point. Secular attempts to excise religion from the public square are often intolerant, and they misunderstand how faith and values work. There is a secular assumption that we can all magically check our faith commitments at the door when we enter the public arena — but that is a fallacy. It would be better for the functioning of our political process for candidates to be more transparent about their faith and values rather than pretending those commitments don’t exist. We, the public, benefit from knowing what motivates those who seek to represent us. Rather than defining “secular society” as anti-faith, it is more productive and more American to reframe it as faith-neutral.
Of course, this approach requires a fundamental trade-off: In return for being welcomed into the public square, every faith must implicitly acknowledge that it is not the one true faith. What makes some people nervous when a politician wears his religion on his sleeve is the suspicion that he won’t respect those of other religions or no religion.
In this regard, the founders left us a nuanced legacy, summed up beautifully by two contrasting quotes by John Adams: On the one hand, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And on the other hand, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” There’s the rub. The founders built a government around the idea of natural rights bestowed upon us by the “Creator.” At the same time, they had learned the lessons of history regarding how state-sponsored religion threatens human freedom.
It’s that balance that I’d like to see more in our national conversation around faith in politics. If any candidate wants to affirm their faith as a source of the values that drive them, I welcome it. All the better if it comes across as authentic spirituality instead of pandering sound bites.
But candidates must also remember that we live in a pluralistic culture where religious freedom is enshrined in law. Using the coercive tools of the state to impose one religion over others would be a perversion of both religion and government. America is a uniquely religious country precisely because of the separation of church and state. We can and should welcome faith voices in the public arena without marrying any one religion to government. Secularists should be reminded that faith often drives leaders into public service for the common good. Religionists should remember that state-sponsored religion is as bad for the religion as it is for the state.
Martin Luther King Jr. said it best five decades ago: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-925-8245. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.
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