Why presidential candidates’ faith matters

Dr. Brian Lee Pastor, Christ Reformed Church
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Twenty-five presidential elections ago, a New York Times reporter wondered aloud whether a major nominating convention was a political event or “an assemblage of religious enthusiasts.” This was a fair assessment, as the delegates sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and closed the convention by singing “The Doxology.”

“We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord,” the candidate thundered in his speech, which was subtly titled “A Confession of Faith.”

The party was Progressive, and the candidate’s name was Theodore Roosevelt.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, has resolved in a recent editorial to ask tougher questions about the faith of the Republican candidates for president. He believes 2012 — or was it 1912? — offers an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life, since so many candidates belong to “mysterious or suspect” churches.

Perhaps the real question to be asked regarding faith and politics is whether our journalists can be trusted to ask the questions that matter. For starters, Keller wants to know whether the Republican candidates would have “any hesitation” appointing a Muslim or an atheist to the federal bench. Conveniently, anyone who has read Keller’s editorial doesn’t have to bother asking him the obvious rejoinder:

Would you, candidate Keller, have any hesitation appointing an evangelical Christian to the federal bench?

The answer is all too clear.

Besides playing schoolyard gotcha to Keller’s gotcha — “It takes a religious bigot to know one!” — his article raises important questions about how and why we should ask questions about the religious faith of our candidates. Because we must ask such questions.

Candidates’ faith matters because it reveals their character and intellect. Whether and how candidates professes their faith — or unbelief — reveals how they think, and how they respect the beliefs of others. I would no sooner choose to elect a bigoted atheist than a bigoted Christian.

And most especially, we must ask questions about faith when candidates invoke their faith as playing an active role in their public life, and views of governance. Given the importance of talking about faith, it’s a shame Keller’s faith questions give questioning faith such a bad name.

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Let’s start with faith and reason.

Keller opens his article by comparing religious faith to belief in extraterrestrials, and deprecates the Catholic teaching of the Eucharist as a youthful folly. You get the impression he stopped believing his priest about the time he learned the truth about Santa, and for the same reasons.

Keller betrays a classic naturalist bigotry against the supernaturalist in his treatment of the Eucharist. He is not content to personally deny miracles, but rather insists upon the utter impossibility of miracles. He therefore implies with subtle smugness that faith in miracles betrays a fundamental irrationality or childishness. As though anyone dim enough to believe the Catholic teaching of the Mass may at any time try to eat a stone hoping that it may turn into bread.

Christian belief in miracles — whether it be the cardinal doctrine of the Resurrection or ex nihilo Creation — does not imply irrationality, or disbelief in science or history. It is not an obstacle to the practice of science, as any journalist could discover by talking to any one of the many believing scientists. In fact, many have argued exactly the opposite: that the rise and flowering of modern science required belief in a God who both establishes the “laws” of nature and has the power to suspend them.

Isn’t it ironic that on the two scientific hot-button issues of the day — global warming and evolution — Christians are derided for being too skeptical in their approach to the empirical evidence? For insisting that theories be labeled as such, and serve only in a qualified manner as the basis for action in the world?

It does not require a lack of intellect to believe in a miracle. This too is demonstrable. Journalists and historians more capable than I, a humble pastor, can illustrate countless brilliant men and women who have confessed the miracles of Scripture, not only prior to the enlightenment, but today. These people all functioned perfectly well in “the reality-based community.”

The relevant faith questions for politicians are: “What kind of miracles does your God work?” and “How will that impact your governance?”

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Now let’s talk about faith and character.

First, it’s important to note that character is not unrelated to intelligence. By implying that Christians lack reason, Keller is also implying that they lack the ability to exercise moral reasoning. He is impugning their character.

As a journalist, Keller could himself answer a couple of questions of fact about Christians and character. How are Christians commanded to act toward their neighbor (hint: Love). How have Christians in power, in fact, acted? The question is not whether they have been perfect, or sinless. No one is so historically naïve to suggest that. The question is whether they have tended to behave better or worse than those who professed no belief at all, or promoted atheism.

The last century provides a very grim record of unbelieving governance. We recently fought a long, cold war against godless communism. Perhaps that history is still relevant to why the American electorate overwhelming votes for candidates who profess the Christian faith. This includes not only the right, but also the center and the left — even if the latter two don’t care so much whether the candidate (wink, wink) really means it.

Has our politics changed all that much since 1912, or only our political reporters? Is it the case that as our nation’s elites get further and further from the faith of their fathers, the proclivities of all sincere believers look more and more suspect to them?

Questions need to be asked, and answered, when faith enters the public square. But when those who ask treat faith itself as an alien matter, they call into question their own qualifications for doing so.

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a Communications Director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.