That Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama-arguably the two most overtly religious candidates in both parties-won the Iowa caucuses-confirms that religion is a major influence on both the political right and the left.

Three college professors who teach in River Forest weren’t surprised.

“You can’t separate religion and politics,” said Bob Hayes, a professor in the Dept. of History, Political Science and Philosophy at Concordia University,
“because what drives people politically are their values and their opinions and their beliefs. I don’t think we have to be apologetic about that.”

Resisting the temptation to distinguish between religious and non-religious issues in the upcoming primary on Feb. 5, Hayes said that for a person who views life through the lens of faith, every issue has a religious dimension. For example, the issue of tax policy can be understood from the perspective of the biblical demand for justice for the poor.

Hayes suggested the demon to be exorcised is not religion itself but a certain personality type he refers to as “true believers.”

“They believe they have been endowed with clear information about objective reality.” he said. “When a person believes that, there’s no discussing anything with them. If you disagree with them, by definition you are wrong.”

Chris Colmo, professor of political science at Dominican University, goes further than Hayes, contending that even people who consider themselves to be secular are influenced by religion.

“America very much lives off of its religious capital,” he argued. “Many Americans like to think of ourselves as a secular nation, but many of the values they hold really have a religious origin. To exclude religion from the marketplace seems to me to be almost an impossibility.”

The uses of religion

If religion is as inseparable from politics as the warp is from the woof in fabric, the challenge then becomes how it should be understood and used. Hugh McElwain, a professor of theology at Dominican and a practicing Roman Catholic, acknowledged that the American Catholic bishops issued a voters’ guide in November, titled “Faithful Citizenship.” He said the bishops have the right, if not the obligation, to make their opinions known, as do the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“They have the right to suggest to their constituents what they believe are the key issues,” McElwain said, hastening to add, “but once people get into the voting booth, they will vote their conscience, and that’s what some of the bishops were saying [in Faithful Citizenship].” This is especially true, he said, because there is no one candidate who consistently articulates Catholic moral teaching.

Hayes said that precisely because there will probably be no candidate whose proposals match each voter’s values, religion also becomes an influence on how voters prioritize those values. If a voter is both pro-life and anti-war but can find no candidate who stands for both, that person’s beliefs will help determine whether he or she votes for a candidate, for instance, who wants to turn back the clock on Roe v. Wade but supports continuing the war in Iraq.

McElwain raised the issue of consistency as a standard in evaluating the religious language that candidates use. Cardinal Bernardin used to call the Catholic social teaching on “life issues” a seamless garment. That means that if you are pro-life regarding abortion, to be consistent you have to be pro-children, anti-war, against the death penalty and anti-euthanasia.

Coming to terms with ‘God talk’

All three scholars agreed that character counts in choosing who to vote for.

“[Voters] should realize that whomever they elect is going to be subject to myriad pressures,” Colmo said, “and they really need to look for someone who can stand up under … a very grueling test of their own perseverance and commitment.”

According to Hayes, it is precisely on the issue of character that George W. Bush has failed the American people. Though Bush may have said the right words during the campaigns about compassionate conservatism, “I don’t think he has been a strong enough person to stand up to all those who told him what to do.”

Hayes, Colmo and McElwain also emphasized the importance of religious language in the campaign. Colmo said “God talk” sometimes is the most effective way to communicate a concept, especially to those who see life through a religious lens. The caucuses in Iowa confirmed his contention.

The problem, as he sees it, is that religious language tends to be vaguer than specific policy statements.

“Huckabee, for example, could be very sympathetic to you from a religious point of view,” he said, “but then when you heard his actual policy on a particular [subject] you might find it harsh or even cruel.”

Likewise, Hayes had no problem with the use of God talk in the campaign. His problem with religious language is that it doesn’t resonate with everyone. The Concordia prof thinks candidates need to be, in effect, at least “bi-lingual” in their stump speeches, i.e. they should be able to support the policies they are proposing using language that would appeal to the values of an atheist as well as born-again Christians.

He’s OK with Huckabee or Obama backing up their proposals on tax reform with references to the biblical prophets “as long as it can be linked to other justifiable [ways of reasoning], i.e. if an atheist could come up with the same reasons. You can’t say ‘do it this way because it’s the Christian way.’… You say ‘do it because that’s what justice requires.'”

He said, “I want … someone who is comfortable talking about their faith but not going to cram it down anyone else’s throat. People know where you’re coming from, but it’s not the only way to arrive at the same conclusion. Just for the sake of inclusion, you need to be able to demonstrate that the religious beliefs have something other than ‘revealed truth’ to them.”

Prophetic corrective for society

All three expressed concern about the impact American individualism has had on organized religion-and therefore the God talk coming from candidates.

“It seems to me,” McElwain said, “that rugged individualism becomes also religious rugged individualism. The tradition sort of fits that I, I, I, I.”

He believes organized religion can serve as a prophetic corrective to self-centered social trends, citing the following themes from Catholic social teaching:

n Dignity of the Human Person

n Preferential Option for the Poor

n Solidarity of the Human Family

n The Common Good

n Participation

n Dignity of Work

n The Universal Purpose of Material Things

n Social Nature of the Human Person

‘A muddy thing’

While believing that religion and religious language have a place in the public square, all three are staunch supporters of the separation of church and state. Hayes, whose specialty is constitutional law, said we need to “jealously guard” the rights of those who believe differently.

What makes it complicated, according to Hayes, is that in the Constitution there is a built-in tension between the establishment clause, which restricts the mixing of religion and politics, and the free exercise clause, which defends religious expression. It’s a balancing act-difficult to know where to draw the line between the appropriate influence of religion and what is unconstitutional.

But the professors were unanimous in their assessment that the relationship between religion and politics is complex. Hayes spoke for himself and his colleagues when he said, “If someone thinks they see it clearly, they probably don’t understand because it is a muddy thing-religion and politics, church and state.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...