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Does Religion Affect Politics? If so, Why, and Should it?

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The proper interaction of religion and politics (or government, which is what politics is mainly about) is an important question and hotly debated in the blogosphere. However, much of the debate tends to be dogmatic. Those who are "religious" seem to argue that religion is good while those who are not religious seem to argue that religion is bad. I have occasionally expressed the view that when I get promoted to God, and have to decide what scourges to eliminate, I will first look at religion and cancer and then eliminate religion first, because it has done more harm than has cancer. I now have a few doubts about this position, and the purpose of this article is to stimulate some discussion of the matter.

A suit was recently filed claiming that the Federal Government

violated the Constitution by contracting [with] a Roman Catholic entity to help victims of human trafficking.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was imposing its beliefs on victims of human trafficking by not allowing federal grant money to be used for contraception or abortion. . . .

The suit asks the court to stop the department from allowing its grants being spent in a way that is restricted by religious beliefs.

Contracting with a religious organization to provide humanitarian assistance which is consistent with its religions doctrines, even though the organization declines to provide ancillary services which are inconsistent with those doctrines, strikes me as neither bad or unlawful; there are doubtless many other organizations, religious and otherwise, willing to augment the organization's services along those lines. More to the point, I don't understand how Governmental support for an organization which declines to do something contrary to its religious beliefs (as distinguished from insisting on doing something solely religious in nature) constitutes anything approaching an establishment of religion. The situation would be quite different if an organization required, for example, that recipients of Governmentally supported benefits attend mass, confess their sins, or pray in order to receive those benefits. Still, there must be some valid basis for the notion that religious doctrine should have absolutely no impact on Government. Right?

This subject cannot reasonably be discussed (should that even be possible) without first attempting a working definition of religion. That is difficult, because it is quite easy to be excessively inclusive or exclusive. The following attempt at definition is based primarily on my perceptions of Christianity because, although I am not one, I think I have a better understanding of Christianity than of any other religion. And, of course, in the United States Christianity is at the moment and has historically been the most widely professed (if not all that widely followed) religion. For the purposes of discussion, Christianity will serve as an exemplar for religion, although it is not the most widely professed in the world. This is also useful because for most of us Judeo-Christian tradition is probably the most familiar.

My offered definition is:

A dogmatic attachment to and acceptance based solely on faith of statements of "fact" as expressed in or somehow derived from a Holy Text or other recognized authority, such as the Old and New Testaments, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed, coupled with specified moral prescriptions and proscriptions, such as those expressed in the Ten Commandments and in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Some moral prescriptions and proscriptions are taken more seriously than others, but nevertheless widely recited. This also appears to be true of the dogmatic but amoral beliefs. Expressions of the dogmatic beliefs seem not to change very often, although some of the moral views do change somewhat with time.

The moral precepts of religion in the United States appear to have a far greater impact on social issues than do the related dogmatic precepts. The doctrine of the Trinity, although an integral component of Christianity, appears to have little if anything to do with practical morality or how people interact. The other doctrinal teachings seem to have equally little to do with practical morality, with the exception of the existence and purposes of Heaven and Hell. These are seen as rewards and punishments for good and bad moral conduct, and hopes and fears of going there can be powerful inducements toward morality for those who seriously believe in them.

About Dan Miller

  • Roger Nowosielski

    I did, but must have put them in the wrong spot. I’ll try again until I get it right.

  • HeddaCabbage

    Not all those who are opposed to abortion are believers. Not all those who are opposed to capital punishment are nonbelievers. Granted (and I’m especially willing to concede this when they happen to AGREE with me!) some nonbelievers come to their conclusions with the aid of a moral compass, just as some who claim to be religious come to theirs. In the most fruitful and morally grounded discussions, points of view are not dismissed because they are identified with religion or lack thereof.

  • Baronius

    Dan – I made a couple of statements that moved from your original position to a kind of states’ rights argument. I think that Roger is pondering what you and I said, rather than what you said.

    Roger did bring up an interesting point about professions having their own ethical codes. That introduces more complications into a model of politics and ethics.

  • HeddaCabbage

    OK, before I erroneously put words in Dan(Miller)’s mouth (correct positioning of apostrophe?) I’d best depart from this discussion.

    I’m not sure, but I think it takes the ministrations of a comments editor to free us from italics now. Good talking with you Roger!

  • Roger Nowosielski

    I guess I’ll preview first before posting; then I’ll be able to figure out what I’m doing wrong.

  • Roger Nowosielski

    Yes, Baronius,

    I think that’s where the confusion arose.

    Hedda, stay on the line: you made some good concrete contributions, with your examples for one.


  • Roger Nowosielski

    Hedda (#152),

    That was exactly my point. Morality is part of language and it runs across religious beliefs or absence thereof. Still, the contested issues are contested, essentially, on moral grounds.


  • Dan(Miller)


    Re # 153 — Thank God Zeus and Athena whatever! I thought maybe I was more demented than I have been willing to acknowledge.

    I agree that professional ethics are essentially separate from religion. That is probably a good thing, if only to avoid confusion; besides, professional ethics are pretty much enforced by professional bodies, such as the bar and medical associations. That doesn’t necessarily eliminate confusion, but at least it does provide some written precedents upon which to rely. Beats highly emotional diatribes.


  • Dr Dreadful


    Is that you, Irene?

  • Roger Nowosielski


    I’d still like to argue (in continuity with #148) that moral language, and moral notions in general, are part of ordinary language. With or without religious affiliations and organized religions, it is those notions which, at bottom, are at the root of disagreement whenever contested issues come before the courts for adjudication. The fact that one of the parties to the contest buttresses its position (or grounds it, as it were) in religious views is ONLY a political complication, and inconvenience. So how is this feature of American political life intrinsic to the problem, I ask.


  • Dan(Miller)


    I’d still like to argue (in continuity with #148) that moral language, and moral notions in general, are part of ordinary language. . . .

    Pray do so, kind Sir. To the limited extent that I may have it, I yield the floor.


    Wipes perspiration from brow and stumbles around seeking a chair.

  • HeddaCabbage

    I’m sorry to comment over Dan(Miller)’s long -awaited acceptance of Roger Nowosielski’s comment #148 challenge, but
    I do need to say a quick hello to Dr. D: Yes! I’d make SUCH a lousy poker player. :)

  • Roger Nowosielski

    Are you, by the way, the same “Irene” Doc made reference to a comment or so ago? From one of the threads a while ago, I remember Irene Wagner. Am I completely off. But perhaps I shouldn’t be asking.

  • Dr Dreadful

    It took me a day or so to figure it out, Irene, but then I remembered the ‘Hedda Cabbage’ joke you made a few weeks back, and realized that your writing style seemed familiar…

    I promise I won’t tell! ;-)

  • Clavos

    I’ll see your Nom de Plume and raise you two aliases, Irene…

  • Ruvy

    You know Irene, when you referred to my heart disease in your comment to me, I started getting suspicious. But I didn’t suspect you.

    You can stuff the cabbage with chopped meat and put a good tomato sauce over it, now….

  • Dr Dreadful

    Oh, Ruvy, please desist. It’s at least four hours till dinner time.


  • Ruvy

    And for me it is five hours till – breakfast.

    (rumble, rumble…)

    I’ll raise you one stuffed cabbage and two cinnamon rolls (yumm)

  • HeddaCabbage

    Ha! Well I had SOME of you stumped anyway. Have nice meals, sleeps, weekends, Sabbaths, etc. guys. :)

  • bliffle

    Religion ? Politics? Anyone notice how fast GWB dropped the religious folks when they no longer served his purposes?

    When he needed to beatup the Godless Liberals he was honking the religious horn all day and night.

    But now, he seems to have thrown them aside like used up whores.

    What happened to Billy Graham and the rest of the family?

    No longer any place in the Bush wagon for has-beens?

  • Clavos

    used up whores.

    Very apt simile for men of the cloth…

  • Irene Wagner

    * yells at Clavos *

  • Dan(Miller)


    Gosh darn! You are terribly sexist. Here, let me fix it fer ye:

    Very apt simile for men women and others of the cloth…

    Dan(Miller) aka Danama

  • Clavos

    Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, Fr. Dan.

    Yer right; the broads are just as bad…

  • Irene Wagner

    * decides not to apologize to Clavos and yell at him AGAIN *

    Off to sin no more. I mean it this time!