Balancing Faith and Politics
by Amara McLaughlin
Issues of faith and morality in policy-making are at the forefront of the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Hot topics like gender, marriage equality, reproductive rights and healthcare percolate in public discourse, while the divide between religious and secular viewpoints remains a strong component of American political identity.
“How candidates talk about their role in government is a faith issue in a sense, and whether the role of government is supplanting the role of God,” said Michelle Boorstein in the Role of Religion in the 2016 Run for the White House panel discussion on June 17 in Washington, DC. A religion reporter for The Washington Post, Boorstein believes faith will drive the agenda of presidential candidates. Indeed, 70 percent of Republicans say they wouldn’t support a candidate who isn’t religious and 42 percent of Democrats agree.
“Our religious heritage is part of our identity as Americans,” says Congressman Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, but “there is an appropriate role in forming opinions that doesn’t include the public embellishment of religion worn on your shoulder like a badge. Faith should be a private matter.” Known for his liberal position on civil rights and equality, Polis, a Reform Jew, takes a strong stance on freedom of expression and freedom of religion, while incorporating advice from Jewish tradition. “Talmudic scholars would work into the night trying to decide whether to support a package or not,” he says. “Legislation bills deal with these kind of decisions too … where there are ten things you like and one you don’t, but you need to rely on your morality and personal experience when weighing these.”
In the last decade, Americans’ positions on moral issues have shifted to the left. Polis is the first openly gay man to be elected into Congress as a freshman, and perhaps the biggest cultural change has been the growing support for same-sex marriage. “I was absolutely against gay marriage and I was against gay people, but now I’ve changed my mind,” says Amo Houghton, former Republican representative for New York. Houghton has a lifelong association with the Episcopalian church, which began to relax its opposition to same-sex marriage in 2012.
Norm Coleman, former Republican senator from Minnesota, believes the public’s changing stance on marriage equality is still complicated for politicians: “I have strong moral positions because of my faith and upbringing. I know what my positions are on issues. I’m not holding my finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.”
Coleman says he believes in same-sex human rights and lobbies against discrimination even though he believes in traditional marriage values. “Fighting against discrimination is part of Jewish values,” says Coleman, who is an unaffiliated Jew, but whose ties to the Modern Orthodox and Reform movements inform the causes he is most passionate about as a moderate Republican. Coleman is known as an outspoken supporter of Israel and fervent supporter of pro-life causes. “It’s not as simple as saying someone is pro-life because of his or her faith. Religious and cultural experiences provide a backdrop to a range of issues, and there is a strong moral component to what I do that is faith driven and sensitizes me to certain issues.”
Americans are in a state of transition toward a more liberal position on social issues. Yet partisanship still divides Democrats and Republicans and gridlocks decisions on social and cultural matters in Congress.
“My faith drives me to do what I think is right,” says Lincoln Davis, former Democrat representative for Tennessee and active member of the Southern Baptist church who is known for voting with his party a vast majority of the time, despite his personal, religiously influenced conservatism.
“William Wilberforce changed the soil of England because it was corrupt and he abolished the slave trade,” says Frank Wolf, a former and longest serving Congressman from Virginia (a Republican) and member of the Presbyterian Church. “He took his faith into the marketplace. He didn’t just keep it in his room… If your faith doesn’t motivate you to then go out and help your prisoner, if it doesn’t help you to feed the poor and the hungry in northern Virginia, if it doesn’t help you feed Sister Diana in Iraq who’s being raped, if it doesn’t help you to be involved in the girls of Boko Haram then what good is it?”
Politicians like Wolf see the value in distinguishing between public secularism and personal beliefs. There is still a strong relationship between religiousness and partisanship in the United States. A 2014 Gallup poll found that a higher percentage of those practicing their religion reported a stronger leaning toward the Republican Party than non-religious and moderately religious individuals.
Coleman, who believes his political beliefs and religious beliefs are integral components of his identity, and have fostered his proclivity for politics and justice work. “My cultural and religious upbringing guided me towards public service. Tikkun olam sensitizes us to do good.”
He says his work as a politician, lobbyist and lawyer was learned early on because it’s ingrained in Jewish culture. He refers to the Ten Commandments as his compass when faced with moral issues of governance. “My faith doesn’t dictate a particular vote but guides me,” he says.
Polis believes in this guided approach too, recognizing that he can’t separate himself from his heritage. “We make a lot of moral decisions when we vote in Congress and it’s always good to fall back on the guidance from the Torah and our personal experiences,” says Polis. “That’s the beauty of the Torah and the books of the Prophets, there are so many parables that can resonate with everyone for a particular time in their life.”
Mike McCurry, professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and former press secretary to President Bill Clinton puts it this way: “One way or another, what we believe and how we form our values, and what we’re taught from our faith traditions does impact the way in which we serve in a public capacity.”