What a Politician’s Religion Really Means
Very few politicians have a clear understanding of biblical teaching about government, but we can vote for them anyway
In a recent “Room for Debate” forum in the New York Times, the Canadian writer Randy Boyagoda argued that “American voters care too much about the religion of their elected officials in the wrong ways.” That is, voters are more affected by candidates’ discussion of the role that religion plays in their private lives than by how it shapes their political philosophy and policies.
Sadly, he thinks, candidates’ effort to convince voters that they are “God-fearing, God-loving and God-inspired to do great and necessary things for their God-blessed country” prevents Americans from having a more substantive debate over the place of religious principles and values in public policy and the nation’s future direction. Boyagoda contends that instead of providing “syrupy salvation stories,” candidates should discuss how their “religious traditions, formulations and ideas about human flourishing and human community” will affect the way they govern.
Consider Our Presidents
Consider our presidents, however. Their religious convictions often significantly influenced how they perceived the world and developed their policies. Few Americans know this because scholars have judged the presidents’ religious convictions to be irrelevant or uninteresting. Most scholars who have discussed their faith have instead focused on their religious socialization and private piety.
Politicians’ worldviews affect how they see the world and respond to events. It shapes their conception of reality, perception of people, understanding of how politics works, what they most highly value and to what they pay attention. Their religious convictions strongly influence many politicians’ understanding of the meaning of life, the basis of morality, the nature and purpose of society, the role of government, and the dignity of human beings.
As journalist and former presidential speechwriter Colleen Carroll Campbell correctly observes in this Times forum, every politician brings his or her worldview into the public square. Even if a person’s “beliefs about life’s ultimate questions are poorly thought out, haphazardly adopted, or defined” primarily by what he rejects, they powerfully influence his political actions and policy choices.
Consequently, voters have a duty to evaluate what candidates believe before putting them into office. The most important questions voters should ask when pondering a politician’s faith, Campbell maintains, is: “Does he actually mean it?” and to what extent “does it influence her public and private choices?”
We should also ask if a candidate has a history of allowing her religious convictions to influence her choices and if we support those choices. It is unlikely, Campbell adds, that we will find a “theological soulmate at the ballot box,” but voters should search for candidates “whose religiously derived moral and political principles mesh with their own most deeply held values.”
When evaluating a candidate’s religion, voters need to recognize two realities.
First, politicians use religion to further their own purposes: to gain the approval of various groups, enhance their popularity, win elections, increase support for their policies, and fortify their claim to be virtuous and honest. They employ religious and moral rhetoric to defend their own policies, programs, and actions and to criticize those of their opponents.
Religious and moral appeals help connect particular policies with transcendent norms, elevating them above mundane, pragmatic concerns and strengthening citizens’ commitment to them. Therefore, it is often challenging to discern politicians’ actual religious presuppositions and positions.
Second, few politicians are theologians or biblical scholars. While many of them possess vibrant personal faith, worship regularly, pray diligently, know the Bible well, and ponder theological issues, only a handful of them have a systemic, holistic understanding of scriptural teaching about government and politics.
For example, although many presidents have quoted the Bible extensively and often cited its principles and parables in their speeches and letters, none of the 22 I have studied in depth developed a philosophy of government that was deeply grounded in biblical theology and norms. Rather than basing their administrations and actions on a comprehensive biblical worldview, they tended to use scriptural passages as proof-texts to support their positions. Their political philosophies have not been consistently based on scriptural teaching about creation, human nature, sin, redemption, power, community, justice and love.
Therefore, while recognizing that the religious convictions candidates espouse often strongly shape their worldviews and policies and considering this in our voting, Christians (and other religious Americans) should not hold them to unrealistic, and in most cases unattainable standards. That is, we can vote for candidates who do not have a coherent understanding of how their religious convictions determine or affect their policies if we respect their character, admire their political record and generally agree with their policies.
Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College and is the author of Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents (Oxford University Press, 2015) and Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).