Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why does it matter?

With all the recent uproar about the presidential candidates religious views it is easy to forget that we live in a country where at least in theory church and state are separate. In an April 2008 LA Times Article Maeve Reston reports on John McCain’s religious views with the main thesis being that McCain is taking criticism for not being open enough about his religion. The article mentions a convention of conservative evangelicals that McCain met with shortly after he became the presumptive nominee. His audience was underwhelmed with one prominent member claiming, “The vast, vast majority of them were either sitting on the sidelines or unenthusiastic about his impending nomination and he didn't move a single person."(Reston 1) The evangelical audience was not dismayed by what they heard, but rather what they did not hear, namely a definitive stance by McCain on his faith. McCain defended his choice not to state his specific views saying, “People should know the tenets of my faith, but you want to be careful not to create an appearance-- whether its intended or not intended-- of imposing the specifics of your beliefs on others.”(Reston 2) The article goes on to piece together McCain’s religious views from many of his comments on a number of issues. The final conclusion made by the article is that McCain’s faith is strong enough to rally the conservative base.

The question I have to ask here is why does it matter. Our government should be run such that the religious views of it's leaders do not have a large impact on policy making. In my opinion McCain’ s comment defending his decision not to harp on the specifics of his faith was right on. The people have a right to know the religious views of the men and women whom they must vote for, but they also have a right to be sure that these views will not be forced upon them. A candidates religious views should be used to judge how that candidate would react in a specific situation, not how likely that candidate is to help one religious group force their morals on others. McCain’s statement that he must, “Be careful not to create the appearance…of imposing the specifics of your beliefs on others,” would likely have pleased Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an advocate of religion in men, but he seemed to have no preference as to which religion they chose: “because while I claim a right to believe in one God, I yield freely to others that of believing in three. Both religions, I find make honest men, and that is the only point society has any right to look to.”(Jefferson) I agree with the article’s conclusion that McCain is religious despite his reluctance to speak about it publicly, as well as with McCain’s reasons to decline to speak about his personal faith, but I think that the mere fact that a candidate must prove his religious credentials shows that the wall between church and state has been if not demolished then at least breached.


Van E said...

I agree that McCain’s comment, “People should know the tenets of my faith, but you want to be careful not to create an appearance-- whether its intended or not intended-- of imposing the specifics of your beliefs on others,” is exactly right. As Robert says, people should be aware of what a person’s faith is only insofar as it affects the candidate’s responses to hypothetical situations that the head of state might encounter. However, I don’t think this is an issue that the separation of church and state can remedy. The article never mentions any governmental or legal pressure on McCain to disclose his religious beliefs; instead, all of the pressure is from the voters. This suggests that the issue is more of a social one, that is exacerbated by the media frequently reporting on candidate’s personal lives thus making anything about the candidates, including religion, fair game to be in the public sphere. I don’t think there’s any legal remedy for such a social issue, because any attempt to prevent the media from reporting on the religion of a candidate becomes a free speech violation. Therefore, I do not really see this as a violation of the wall between church and state, because there are no agents of the state doing anything to exacerbate this problem.

pcr002 said...

This issue matters, unfortunately, because there is a significant segment of the US population who vote based on "moral" issues, or in other words, issues that are particularly relevant to religious discourse. The Religious Right cares because they are largely voting based on issues of abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and others. For some people, the religious convictions of a political leader are important because it is believed that they can judge that leader's moral judgement and values. President Bush is very popular among the Religious Right (I use this term referencing, in part, the "conservative evangelicals" mentioned in the original post) because he is vocal about his religious beliefs and that comforts those who are concerned about these "moral" issues. McCain does not profess his faith publicly and therefore he fails to instill confidence in conservative religious officials when it comes to issues that they are most invested in.

Should it matter? No, in my opinion. I like when politicians keep their religious beliefs close to the vest. It reassures me that they aren't likely to make important decisions based purely on religious reasoning. Though, of course, there's no way to know that for sure.