GUEST COMMENTARY: God Isn’t My Co-pilot; He’s My Running Mate

c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) We are experiencing a peculiar sort of religious awakening in America. If the various Republican and Democratic candidates have not had recent conversion experiences, they have at least been moved to talk about faith. And they are doing so in ways we have not seen this early, this prominently in any recent presidential campaign.

A political turn-to-God talk in itself is neither good nor bad. At least not until we listen to the substance of what the candidates are saying. It is bad when faith becomes another buzzword, as when Republican candidates are forced to raise their hand to signal whether they believe in evolution. Or when the Democrats tell us they, too, have faith in values.

But it can also be good, as when recent discussions became informative. The several Catholic candidates, in both parties, have struggled to articulate views on public-versus-private morality and the authority of Vatican teachings as they confront the legality of abortion. Mitt Romney entered the campaign braced for anti-Mormon sentiment, and he has proactively shared his moral worldview. John Edwards has named his own vision of social-justice evangelism that undergirds his populist message.

The tradition of rediscovering religious roots just in time for elections is certainly nothing new, but are these turns to God genuine? Are they relevant? Why should we care?

As we consider faith in our political life, we should ask three questions of each candidate:

First, is the candidate widening the public conversation or narrowing it? Religion can certainly be a ``conversation stopper,'' as philosopher Richard Rorty has put it. It can fuel exclusion and support authoritarian rule.

Alternatively, religious beliefs can serve as vital resources that contribute to moral discussion. Leaders can speak deeply from their own religious and moral commitments while inviting others to do the same.

Second, is the candidate talking about the religious and moral beliefs of the citizenry, or simply talking about himself? We should be less concerned whether our president is a Methodist or a Mormon than whether she or he recognizes that America is composed of Methodists and Mormons, along with Muslims and moral secularists.

Leaders are well advised to acknowledge this fact: Politics is infused with religion and morality because politics is full of religious and moral citizens. Put another way to the candidates: It's not all about you.

Third and finally, does the discussion of faith translate into good and just public policies? Beware the politician who wears faith on her sleeve. Also, beware the politician who criticizes others for wearing faith on their sleeve but who cannot speak articulately about his own moral convictions.

A good leader is able to bring together diverse and devout citizens to understand how moral beliefs inform public policies. At least one pro-choice Catholic candidate has discounted the moral authority of the Vatican out-of-hand; that dismissal shows a lack of respect for the struggle of Catholics to live out their faith as citizens (whether they are pro-choice or pro-life). This is the easy way out.

At least one conservative candidate seems to think that ``And God said: Cut taxes'' is a biblical verse. But such single-minded dogmatism is no substitute for the hard work of public moral deliberation.

As we hear more faith talk in the 24/7 coverage of the election _ and God knows, we are going to get a lot of it _ let us pose these three questions to our would-be leaders: Are they widening public conversation? Do they realize it's not about them? And what difference does faith make for their policies?

(Douglas Hicks is an associate professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond. He is the author of ``Religion and the Workplace.'' A version of this column first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)


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