The Common Good

Faith Issues in the Morally Ambiguous Field of Politics

Date: June 21, 2007

Now that Democrats seem hell-bent on proving they posses as much faith as their Republican counterparts, we are well-beyond asking: Is all this bipartisan expression of faith a good use of presidential campaign time?

Because public displays of faith in contemporary American politics is reduced to some form of Christian religiosity, that means the somewhere between 25 percent and 30 percent of you have no reason to continue reading, barring idle curiosity.

Look how far we've come since John Kennedy ran for president. The country needed to be persuaded that the Catholic Church would not have undo sway with his administration if elected. Sure, we are curious about Mitt Romney because his Mormon faith is a mystery to most, but we want to know that our future commander-in-chief is a man or woman of faith.

Thus, this logic suggests electing someone of the Christian faith, who is comfortable expressing it is the only way to ensure the preservation of American democracy.

Sojourners in conjunction with CNN recently hosted a discussion with the Democratic presidential candidates on "Faith, Values and Poverty." I applaud Sojourners, in particular Jim Wallis, for making poverty part of the conversation, but I fear that such dialogue in the context of one's faith does more to further cheapen faith than it does to affirm the humanity of those living below the poverty line.

If faith is to be a criterion, it is certainly a better use of time to discuss poverty, stagnating wages, and the growing gap between rich and poor than to focus on abortion, same-sex marriage, and Terri Schiavo. But this too implies that one must be a person of faith to address these issues.

Does one need faith to know something must be done to help folk in the 9th Ward who are still suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Does it require faith to want to address the escalating number of people who are without health care?

The public faith conversation continues to be one that promotes an unrealistic idealism. Politicians continue to frame issues in terms of good v. evil and the public continues to accept it. One only need to embrace their side as being "good" in order to relinquish their self-reflective impulses, which opens the door to hubris.

This is why there can be no substantive public outcry when events such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, a selective application of habeas corpus, and the Maher Arar case so clearly take us away from our democratic traditions. This is a problem that infects believers and nonbelievers alike.

But as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1952, every presidential election reveals the dilemma as to how people of faith must navigate between their private notions of faith and their political decisions. If people of faith are reduced to single-issue voters, it is quite possible the vote they cast, given the totality of issues, may go against their self-interest.

Likewise, those who embrace a more holistic faith may still have unrealistic expectations toward politics. The problem lies in that no matter how much a candidate's faith informs their moral outlook; politics is a morally ambiguous exercise.

As Niebuhr opines: "Political issues deal with complex problems of justice, for which every solution carries morally ambiguous elements." The tension for Niebuhr, which is one I embrace, is that politics goes hand in hand with self-interest and power, which at best can be harnessed but not fully eliminated. The art of compromise, essential to politics, can run against the current of one's faith.

Given the enormous amounts of money raised from competing interest by presidential candidates of both parties, it would be foolhardy to assume they are not already morally compromised.

The use of faith in the political discourse is as old as the republic. But what we currently have is akin to a faith litmus test, I would like to think in the 21st century we're more mature than that.