Column: Faith matters in elections

Politics at Loyola


The Maroon


Chris Wiseman

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In the recent debate between the vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, the moderator raised my hopes by broaching the topic of the candidates’ shared Catholicism but then disappointed me by reducing her question to one about their views on abortion.

The candidates’ marginally reflective answers reminded me of the writer Annie Dillard’s jarring words invoking God’s name and power: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets . . . For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” In other words, people – politicians, preachers, all of us – need to take care in speaking of faith and God.

For any election we should be similarly cautious by remembering what government is at its core. The sociologist Max Weber’s defined government as the institution in a society that successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. We are preparing to choose which people and parties control the machinery of government, which at the end of the day can use force to get what it wants.

So if we focus on what is at the intersection of faith and politics, we are dealing with serious business – combining deeply held insights about mysteries of the cosmos (life, death, creation, the end of things) with exclusive claims about who legitimately gets to use violence, when and how.

We today know something about this. The men who purposely flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to have believed that they were acting on God’s will and in fulfillment of cosmic and political purposes. Since the 1500s in Europe, with some regularity, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians have used war and terrorist acts on one another, certain of their causes and eager to seize government’s exclusive right to use force on behalf of faith.

For the current election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney recently did interviews with Cathedral Age magazine about their respective faiths. Romney’s answers were short and focused mostly on public and widely shared dimensions of faith in society, such as charity toward the poor, “one nation under God” and First Amendment protections. Obama’s answers were longer and focused on broader moral principles that he finds as a result of his faith – principles expressed, for example, by Martin Luther King Jr. and in the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr.

One can sense both men’s caution in the interviews, as personal faith has been at times a campaign issue for both. Obama has dealt with accusations from the fringe right regarding his place of birth and even his Christianity. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Romney has been subject to questions from Americans who know little about Mormons and hostility from some evangelical Christians who do not consider Mormons to be orthodox Christians.

In the interviews, Obama and Romney follow the longstanding American tradition – seen clearly in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to Baptist ministers in Houston, but also in the words of many other presidents – of political leaders who assure citizens that their political acts are not beholden to controversial mandates of a particular religious creed.

However, for us ordinary citizens trying to make voting decisions, that approach avoids the really interesting and stirring questions and fails to help us as we grope toward answers. In addition, when candidates run campaigns exclusively as a series of technocratic questions about marginal tax rates or health insurance deductibles, they obscure some of the fundamental questions we as citizens should work out in our own minds and in discussions with one another.

Strictly speaking, separation of church and state is about institutions, and on this, the vast majority of Americans agree that we do not want state-mandated churches or sectarian religious practices.

For individuals, however, elections have a way of stirring the more crucial questions about faith and politics. Citizens who hear the music of faith, to paraphrase William James, might ask themselves: In my deepest experience of the transcendent, do I gain understanding that I can or must translate into political choices and behavior? What does God or Allah or the Way expect of me in relation to others and the broader society? Are my answers to these questions so fundamental and compelling that I am willing to advocate writing them into laws that are to be enforced by the state, ultimately by threat of violence?

Those are some of the stark and unsettling questions that we likely are never to hear candidates speak effectively about in a debate or speech, but those are the questions we should be asking ourselves as we make voting decisions. Where candidates speak in broad principles and language designed to unify or at least not to offend, we as individuals have very particular and personal experiences of God that sometimes resist translation into language that we can share with others.

And yet that is precisely what politics in an open society demands. If we want to argue for principles that are to be enforced by the state (for example, who counts as a citizen endowed with rights?), we must be able to justify that argument with reasons that can be accepted by others from diverse perspectives.

In the liberal tradition of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, Americans tend to think of religion as a choice. However, many people of faith experience religion not as a choice from within but rather as a calling from a transcendent realm.

For all these reasons, our real work as citizens in the upcoming election will likely not be made easier by listening to candidates’ words about religion and politics, church and state. The true struggle will be the perennial Ignatian project of discernment – being present to our own spiritual and moral formation and experiences, and making choices in light of them – combined with the noble American experiment of respectful and reasonable conversation with others who may not be like us.

In other words, we must turn mystical TNT, of which Dillard wrote, into reasonable political principles that respect others treated as equals and make our nation better – that work takes place most effectively not by watching TV debates or tweeting, but in quiet reflection and in conversation with one another.

Chris Wiseman is an associate vice president for development and can be reached at

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