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How Should Faith Influence Politics?

August 10, 2016

We live in interesting times.  Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine has been described as a devout Catholic who is personally opposed to both abortion and the death penalty.  In spite of this, his voting record in the Senate got a 100% approval rating from Planned Parenthood, and he has presided over 11 executions as governor of Virginia.   As a frustrated Catholic in search of someone to vote for, Kaine’s record disappoints me.  Some people, however, see him positively.  One of my more liberal friends described his political performance as “a perfect example of the separation of church and state.”


My friend’s comment really got me thinking.  The phrase “separation of church and state” originated with Thomas Jefferson, and has been invoked by the Supreme Court, but it does not appear in the Constitution itself. What the Constitution actually says is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  These two parts of our 1st Amendment freedoms are known as the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause.”  In plain language, this means that the government cannot establish any official religion, nor can it prevent its citizens from freely exercising their faith.  What “separation of church and state” means is subject to ongoing debate.


For the most part, people of faith have always understood that we can’t expect those who don’t share our beliefs to live by all of our precepts.  But in the United States, much of what we consider right and wrong comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The question becomes, how much should moral values influence law and politics?   Most laws concerning consensual sexual relationships between adults have gone by the wayside, thanks to privacy concerns.  Yet even today, divorce laws and child support laws reflect society’s values about what is fair and right.  So does the American Disabilities Act.


In every generation, there are legal and moral issues that provoke profound disagreements among citizens.   For a brave few, there comes a time when a moral issue becomes inescapable. Those who cry out the loudest are often people of faith.  The challenge comes during the time when some people see a serious moral issue and others don’t.  There was a time when segregation and child labor were normal. When a particular group is oppressed, it’s tempting to just go along quietly.  The argument is always some version of “it’s not that bad,” or “they deserve it” or even “everyone is better off this way.”  Another popular argument against those who speak out is, “you’re trying to force your religion on us.”  But where would we be today if Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t think his faith should affect his politics?  King was jailed, reviled and killed for daring to assert that his black children should have the same freedoms and opportunities as white children, because his faith told him it was true.

We have seen the powerful impact of people of faith in my hometown of Dallas in the aftermath of the July 7 police shootings.  Police Chief David Brown’s “bedrock” faith, which “doesn’t compartmentalize his professional and personal life,” gave him the strength and courage to lead a grieving city toward healing and away from violence.  This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue.  People on both sides of the aisle can be motivated by their faith.


Of course, I can’t deny that evil has also been done in the name of religion.  But I’m not talking about the violent.  I am inspired by the people who have the courage to live their convictions in public, to keep questioning the status quo and who work to bring an end to injustices in our midst.  Whether it is Dallas Police Chief David Brown talking about societal conditions that lead to violence, or Abby Johnson or David Daleiden speaking about the secret practices of abortion providers, we should listen.  Those voices might just be the canary in the coal mine.



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