Americans seem to love the great paradox. We spend billions on exercise equipment and personal trainers while making McDonald’s one of history’s great business stories. We decry environmental destruction while driving behemoth machines around the corner to the grocery store for some free range chickens. We exalt the idea of individual expression by letting everyone mix their own songs on a zillion iPods. We passively watch while network censors come down hard on the naughty exposure of certain body parts in love stories while clearly approving the violent splatter of body parts across the screen on just about any cop show.
We say we love the freedoms of our great nation, including the freedom to pursue our own religious beliefs without fear.
Yes, we love freedom of religion. Until it comes to other people’s religions. Particularly until it comes to the religious beliefs of political candidates. Whoa. Consider this paradox of American life: MY freedom does not include YOUR freedom, because your exercise of freedom might hurt mine. Or so it seems when the conversation turns to religion as a force in politics.
Imagine a politician from Massachusetts running for president of the United States having to depart from the usual campaign rhetoric on war and peace and domestic issues to give a speech about religion, specifically, about whether his religion might be a barrier to his ability to serve as president.
John F. Kennedy, then a Senator from Massachusetts, had to give such a speech in 1960, when he had to address concerns about his Catholic faith. (He was eventually elected president, then tragically assassinated in 1963.)
Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, had to give such a speech just today, 47 years after we thought this matter was long settled. In Romney’s case, the question is whether his Mormon faith might be a barrier to his election to high office.
The names Kennedy and Romney are as far apart politically as the wide gap of the years in this strange recurring debate. Yet, they are joined across history and political philosophy by the force of other ideologies that use religion as a wedge to attempt to influence votes and sway the outcome of elections.
Here’s the real paradox: in an effort to defend their religious beliefs along with their right to hold high office, candidates wind up being forced to make contradictory public statements about their religion. Their religion is important to them, they say, but their religious beliefs will not influence their actions. Good heavens (no pun intended), what good is a religious belief if it does not somehow influence public action? One hopes that deeply religious values such as justice and peace, hope and charity, sound moral reasoning and ethical rigor are not absent from the leader’s considerations when he or she is trying to figure out how to make public policy, conduct international negotiations, influence other national leaders, direct executive agencies, and lead the people to a common vision for the good society we so deeply desire.
Of course, the elected civic leader has a different set of responsibilities from the leader of an organized religion, and those participants in the current debate that willfully conflate these two very different roles are just irresponsible. To suggest that the Mormon Romney or Catholic Giuliani or Methodist Clinton are spokespersons for their religious denominations, or cannot act independently of the direction of the leaders of those denominations, is a dangerous conflation of religion and politics, misunderstanding the true meaning of faith while also skewing political discourse.
Religion and politics are complicated subjects, and infinitely more complex when joined as a single topic. We paradox-loving Americans need to work harder intellectually in this political season to avoid creating this impossible paradox: to deny the importance of religious beliefs among our leaders betrays our commitment to the free exercise of religion, and distorts the vital importance of spirituality in sustaining leaders. But to insist that the leader’s religion poses an overwhelming threat to the free exercise rights of others creates an impossible scenario in which the only truly acceptable candidates would have no religion at all. Take that logic to the electorate and see what happens! But the Constitution protects the rights of all — atheists as well as Catholics and Mormons and Jews and Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Scientologists and Seventh Day Adventists and all other expressions of belief or non-belief, secular or sacred.
We must move past the paradox to this simple reality: religion is an important part of the lives of most people, including political candidates, but it should not be a litmus test. The religion of the candidates should be no more determinative than their gender, race or eye color. To attack a candidate on the basis of religion is insidious. Our commitment as a free people is to respect the rights of others, including those who profess religious beliefs different from our own. Our freedoms do not exist for just those among us who agree with us or who go to our same Church. The true genius of the Constitution resides in its protection of the same rights for all people in all of the myriad expressions of God’s creation.