November 10, 2007

Dropping a God-Bomb

[I originally posted this at Street Prophets, a site on religion and progressive politics, but it definitely belongs at Living in Dryden too.]

At the last of our Dryden candidate forums, in the middle of an ugly campaign, a well-known member of the community attacked our Town Supervisor candidate for comments on her blog that suggested that she didn't believe in God. I was astonished both by the attack and by the not particularly accurate letter that followed it, but this creates another problem for me personally. This kind of attack makes it much more difficult for me to present my faith-based reasoning for many of my own political positions.

You can hear the original exchange (667KB QuickTime audio), or just read the transcript. I've highlighted the part of the exchange I find most troubling.

Moderator: John, you have a question?

John: Yeah. Mary Ann, this is directed to you first but is open to the rest of the folks.

Mary Ann, this is directed to you because it's kind of public record, at least what I've gathered from your blog, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, because I know that stuff is, you know, open to interpretation, but I infer from some comments on your blog that you don't believe in God. I think it's important - and I've got, I've got that here - and maybe I'm inferring it, but you can defend the comments that you made, but -

One, "I'd be happy if God was dropped from the Pledge of Allegiance" is on your blog, and I think it's understood that you don't pledge the allegiance to the flag.

In another area, it says "it's a fun trip as O'Keefe uncovers one criterion after another and he (and I) can't help comparing ourselves" - you being the I - "ourselves to the hypothetical average person: I live in the state where I was born; have lived in the same house for more than five years; am a high school graduate; believe in God - oops, no."

So that's, that's where I'm getting that. And I'm not finished, but I - this is an important question for everybody, because I'm looking at the leadership, potentially, of the Town of Dryden, and I think it's important for us as a people to understand the values that people will be basing - the foundational values that people will be basing decisions on. And everybody has the right to believe what they believe in. That's the great thing about America.

And I just want to ask you specifically, because of these comments, how you'll be making decisions affecting people that do believe in God and have faith.


Mary Ann: I assure you my decision is


John: The question is, I'm just looking at ...

Audience: Let her answer the question, John, let her answer the...

John: I'm just asking the foundational values...

Moderator: John, John...

John: I just want it to be clear - I'm just asking a question.

Mary Ann: I assure you, all of you, that my decisions on the Town Board have nothing to do with my spirituality one way or another. I don't intend to interfere with your spirituality, and I presume you wouldn't infringe on mine. I'm confident that there's an amendment in the Constitution that says that the government does not interfere with religious practice.

Moderator: Would anyone care to respond? I thought we put that to rest with the '60 election, but... Okay - let's go back to the window.

The question wasn't precisely a question - it was pointed clearly at one candidate, and wasn't presented as a question so much as a "this is what's wrong with you - I dare you to reply." (His followup letter to the editor makes him sound like a sheep set upon by wolves - he certainly wasn't.)

Looking beyond that, John weaves through a lot of different takes on why religion might matter to politics, but there's definitely more than just a "foundational values" question here.

Non-Christians over Christians

The part that worries me most is:

how you'll be making decisions affecting people that do believe in God and have faith

This seems to leap wholeheartedly into the strange world of "only Christians should rule other Christians," something that seems incredibly at odds with the Bible at multiple points. To take a simple example, consider Romans 13:1-7, a section that regularly troubles people unsure how political Christians should be:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to [execute] wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore [ye] must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute [is due]; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Remember who Paul was talking about - these rulers were Roman pagans, not Christians. This passage likely gave Constantine comfort in his rule over the Roman Empire, Calvin comfort in his rule in Geneva, and James I comfort when this version of the Bible was produced on his request. However, it was written to give Christians advice on living in a world ruled by non-Christians, and tells them to accept that rule.

Paul's advice also echoes Jeremiah's letter to Jews living in exile in Babylon (29:5-7), where Jeremiah accepts that they have no hope of taking over:

Build ye houses, and dwell [in them]; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

I don't think that either of these passages can be read as "Christians should stay out of politics" - they describe life under governments where there simply wasn't politics. At the same time, however, they make it clear that living under the government of someone whose religion is not your religion is something that can be accepted, not necessarily a problem for God's plans.

The "people that do believe in God and have faith" need to have faith in God, not in Christian politicians.

No religious test

Challenged on the question of how she would treat religious residents, Mary Ann fell back on the First Amendment, saying that "the government does not interfere with religious practice." The moderator's closing comment about "we put that to rest with the '60 election" goes further, reminding the audience that voters elected a Catholic in 1960 despite fears that John F. Kennedy would hand America over to the Pope.

In both cases, the candidate wound up saying something to the effect that "my decisions ... have nothing to do with my spirituality one way or another" or "whose fulfillment of his Presidential office is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation". (Kennedy had time to prepare a much fuller answer, of course.)

This is where we end up when these kinds of questions are posed this way. Here, the question posed was "why should I trust a likely atheist to govern Christians?" In 1960, the question was "why should Protestants trust a Catholic to rule over them?" These questions of trust emerge directly from the questioners' distrust of particular groups, and trying to defend the distrusted group isn't much of an answer to someone already lacking trust.

We're fortunate that our Constitution includes some useful shields to raise against these kinds of questions, but Article VI, section 3 and the First Amendment don't exactly provide a positive-sounding answer.

Is there a better way?

John is right that "foundational values" of candidates are something that voters could do well to know about. The whole point of candidates forums is to figure out who candidates are and what they'll do - to decide who best to entrust with government.

I think there is a good way to ask this kind of question, something that could well fit inside the one-minute limit and produce some useful answers from the entire set of candidates:

Where do your values come from?

I'd hope candidates would feel welcome to answer that with the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Koran, Profiles in Courage, their parents, Bertrand Russell, the Dalai Lama, or whatever they thought most appropriate. They could talk about how their values led them to their current task, and why they think it's important. Voters would then have a chance to evaluate their answers, pondering how that fit with their own hopes for a candidate.

Instead, we had a moment that just made an ugly campaign uglier, polarizing the room and the conversation. What should be an ongoing discussion about our values and our faith turned into an attack and a parry, making it harder for the conversation to go any differently the next time.

Posted by simon at November 10, 2007 8:55 AM in
Note on photos


KAZ said:

Once you become a parent, I think "Where do your values come from" becomes even more critical a question. I find myself asking that question every time I thoughtlessly impose one of my values on my child. Yes, I want her to think the way I do, which in so many ways is the way my parents do. But I also want her to think for herself. It's a challenge!

Robert said:

'Living in Dryden' has become part of my daily routine. It's become my window on America, even though it's very different from the inner-city community I live in here in England.

I'm a political activist and I've been a member of the Labour Party for nearly fifty years. I been an election agent more times than I can remember and served as an elected councillor between 1970 and 1985.

Never once, since my first election campaign as a 16 year old in 1960 has religion come up as an issue. One of my local councillors is a Muslim and the other a Catholic. Me, I believe there is a cycle to life akin to the seasons and I don't believe in any kind of divine creator. One day all the right numbers came up together and life happened and humans are just one little part of the whole amazing thing.

Here, what I think about god or religion really doesn't matter a toss. Most of us think the Muslims are getting a poor deal at the hands of the media and some of the police, especially in London, but here in dear old Nottingham and lots of places like it, the colour or religion (or the lack of one in the case of most of us) doesn't mean a thing.

The proof of this claim is in the number of councillors from ethnic minorities or who are non-Christians that we elect to our councils.

If the Christian brigade ever started playing the religion card when it comes to politics in England they would be well and truly trounced. There is something creepy going on in Dryden like the rest of America when it comes to religion.