When There Is Too Much Religion In Politics

Next week, my defense of religion in politics — Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States — will be published by Simon & Schuster. This book is both a history and apologia of religious conservatives in politics over the past 30 years. But this primary season has led me to the conclusion that my book needs one more chapter: “When There Is Too Much Religion in Politics.”

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Between the attention paid to religion by the media and the constant playing to religious voters by the candidates, even a sympathetic observer might be thinking enough is enough.
Consider the case of former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee. He made the following statement at the debate before the Michigan primary on January 14:
I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the Word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do, to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view (emphasis added).
Huckabee was arguing in favor of two proposed constitutional amendments that I support: the Human Life Amendment (which would protect unborn life) and the Federal Marriage Amendment (which would keep marriage between a man and a woman).
However, to evoke “God’s standards” in a political setting can be dangerous for two reasons. First, it’s bad politics in terms of gaining broad support. What about those voters who don’t believe in God, much less His “standards”? Those voters will wonder, rightly, if Huckabee has anything to say to them.
But beyond merely winning votes, a man of faith in politics should treat our political realm for what it is — the pursuit of the common good through representative government. Politics is not crypto-religion, and it’s not about calling voters to salvation. Personal beliefs, therefore, should be translated into a secular rationale capable of convincing everyone, regardless of faith (or lack of it).
Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with a declaration of personal faith and beliefs in politics; religious conservatives have fought hard to make this an acceptable part of our public life. What I mean by “too much religion in politics” is what occurs when people of faith treat their religious convictions as the end, rather than the beginning, of the argument.
St. Anselm once described faith as something always “in search of understanding.” To hear Huckabee on this particular night in Michigan, you would think he considered “God’s standards” as self-evident as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Gildoff has ranked the candidates on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest “theocrat” rating. Huckabee’s clocking in at a nine is no surprise, but what is surprising is that Hillary Clinton ties with him. Obama, Romney, and Richardson came in a close second at an eight. Given that the Baptist minister Huckabee was lacing his stump speeches with biblical references, it’s not insignificant that Clinton would tie him, with Obama right behind. GOP nominee John McCain comes in close to the bottom with a four, which clearly explains some of his problems with Dr. James Dobson and other leaders of the Christian Right.
After the 2004 election, the Democratic Party leadership worried that it was perceived as suffering from a “God gap” and not being “faith-friendly.” If Gildoff’s ratings are credible — and I believe they are — we will be going into a presidential campaign where the Democratic candidate has been talking about God twice as much as the Republican.
In this respect, the McCain candidacy may be a gift to the GOP. McCain will provide a cooling-off period for “movement” religious conservatives. The Mike Huckabee of the 2008 campaign was simply over the top in his posturing for Evangelical voters. Huckabee in 2012, I predict, will not advocate amending the Constitution according to “God’s standards” and will not rate as highly on Gildoff’s God-o-Meter. (Further, Romney in 2012 won’t be making any grand statements on the subject of America’s “symphony of faith,” as he did at College Station in December; his campaign went downhill from there.)
If religious conservatives are to be successful in politics, they need to spend more time studying natural law and less time worrying about the millennial matters. They know little about the former, and what they know about the latter won’t change anything.
Some religious conservatives will object, saying that believers should speak the truth regardless of the venue — whether a political rally, a schoolroom, or a pulpit. But the pursuit of truth should never be an excuse for showing a lack of respect to others. Understanding what the political order is, and what it is not, shows respect for human dignity, as was discussed in the Vatican’s “Declaration on Human Freedom“:
Truth . . . is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.
Merely declaring a law to be right because it conforms to “God’s standard” may begin political discourse, but it should not end it. In such a case, a politician relies too much on his God talk and too little on “faith seeking understanding.”

Deal W. Hudson is the director of InsideCatholic.com and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster, March 2008).


  • Eric Pavlat

    Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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