Acton Commentary

Private Faith and Public Politics


Earlier this year, a poll revealed that most Americans have a favorable view of religion in the political arena. An O'Leary Report/Zogby International Values poll showed that nearly 60 percent of Americans “say it's important for a president to believe in God and be deeply religious.” More evidence that, at least as far as the poll data shows, Americans take their religion seriously.

This year's presidential race has been narrowed down to two candidates who claim a religious tradition: George W. Bush is a Methodist and John Kerry is a Catholic. We can be sure to hear plenty about the candidates' personal religious convictions and how these beliefs shape their view of the presidency. This is nothing new. John F. Kennedy, campaigning in 1960 to become the nation's first Catholic president, famously promised the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance that he would follow his own conscience, not the Vatican's. “I do not speak for my church on public matters--and the church does not speak for me,” Kennedy said.

But must faith remain a private matter for elected officials? If not, how then should political leaders of faith inform their decision-making while doing justice to the plurality of religious beliefs among their constituencies? In a representative democracy like the United States, some feel that their religious convictions should not inform or determine their policy decisions, out of deference for differing views among the electorate. But the claim that conscience can or should be ignored in specific policy areas is disingenuous, however. Moral considerations of some sort come into play in every policy decision. Political leaders tend to distance their moral convictions from the debate in favor of public opinion only when it is politically expedient.

True statesmen are not merely mouthpieces for opinion polls. British historian Lord Acton recognized that the will of the majority could be and often is just as tyrannical as the will of a monarch, and in some cases more dangerous because the error has the support of the masses. Thus he observes, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority,” and, “The will of the people cannot make just that which is unjust.” These statements speak to the biblical reality confessed by the apostles, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29 TNIV).

In the United States we have compelling historical and contemporary examples of the majority siding with what were, in retrospect, clear-cut cases of injustice. The legalization and promotion of slavery by governments are a prime example, and stand as a sharp rebuke to elected officials who think they ought simply to represent the people without regard to their own conscience. Today, there are a number of hotly contentious issues--such as abortion, stem cell research and, now, marriage--whose partisans often make appeals based on poll data. Our elected officials follow the shifting temper of the electorate with rapt attention. But is this how we ask our elected officials to lead?

Pope John Paul II recently reiterated the necessary link between faith and public policy. Politicians have a duty to bring their faith to bear in their public life. “I consider it opportune to recall that the legislator, and the Catholic legislator in particular, cannot contribute to the formulation or approval of laws contrary to 'the primary and essential norms that regulate moral life,' the expressions of the highest values of the human person and proceeding in the last analysis from God, the Supreme Legislator,” the Pope said.

Politicians do themselves and those they represent no justice by rigidly separating out their religious convictions from their policy decisions. Neither is the electorate advantaged by the omission of authentic religious discussion and engagement of political issues.

Of course simply invoking faith superficially for any issue does not constitute a valid way of meeting these obligations. A heartfelt desire to help the poor, for example, is not enough. Policymaking also requires sound economic thinking and a discernment of the moral underpinnings of competing economic systems. The Bible can and has been claimed for any number of hateful and destructive programs, both political and social. It is in the particular engagement of faith and public duty that prayer and discernment play key roles.

Political leaders of all faiths must bring their respective traditions to bear on their decisions. This is an honest exercise of conscience, and one best managed in a spirit of tolerance and respect. To do otherwise is to commit an act of moral cowardice. In an age when so many are echoing Pontius Pilate's confused question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), too many political leaders have settled on an inadequate answer: the will of the people (and the pollsters).