Well bred people are, I am told, very reluctant to discuss either religion or politics on social occasions; to discuss them in concert is generally considered to be in extremely poor taste. This reluctance often results in rather dull discussions.
The purpose of this article, in poor taste though it may be, is to explore what, if any, proper nexus there may be between religion and politics. I have opined in previous articles, here, here, here and also in various comments, that the hot button issue of abortion, fascinating though it is, has little if any legitimate place in the Presidential campaign, for the simple reason that there is precious little that a President can do about it. Tornadoes are undesirable and beautiful weather is desirable. Since we all (or at least most of us) agree with this conclusion, and recognize that a President can do nothing useful to prevent the one or to produce the other, they are not generally part of campaign discussions. I suppose that if a President came out four-square in favor of tornadoes or against beautiful weather, we might well consider him a lunatic and vote against him no matter what his stands might be on other issues. Perhaps the same may be said of the abortion issue, and a candidate's views on that subject may be of similar interest. Still, there is far less popular consensus that someone who opposes abortion or who favors choice on the matter is a wicked person or a nut. And that's all that I propose to say about abortion here.
Once upon a time there was substantial doubt that a Roman Catholic could run successfully for President. JFK, a (perhaps occasionally lapsed) Roman Catholic did so, and there remains little question about that possibility. Senator Goldwater, a Jew, ran for President, and lost. Senator Lieberman, also a Jew, ran for Vice President and also lost. I don't think that their religion had much to do with their losses, and I certainly hope that we have put once very strong anti-Semitic tendencies behind us. "Born again" Christians have successfully run for high office, although those widely deemed excessively heavy-handed haven't succeeded. An avowed Agnostic/Atheist would probably get few votes; since I am one of those that bothers me, but very little. I understand that the United States has a Judeo-Christian heritage, I respect it, and find it far preferable to many other possible religious heritages. The United States would, in my view, be a far worse place if it had a Marxist or Muslim heritage, for the simple reason that we would not likely have the freedoms which we so enjoy. Of course, never having had them we might not miss them, but I suspect that we would nevertheless come to desire at least some of them. There are modest suggestions that such desires have arisen, despite strong resistance to them, in some countries dominated by the Marxist and Muslim religions.
When I was a young boy, and attended Sunday School at a Methodist Church, it was suggested that should I have an opportunity to do so, I should prefer Methodists over, for example, Baptists as employees. I was told by others, more or perhaps less in jest, that Methods were Baptists who had learned how to read, that Episcopalians were Methodists who had learned to write, and that Roman Catholics were Episcopalians who could deal with Latin. That was back in the early 1950s, and I rather hope that things have changed for the better. In any event, I am confident that Baptists and Methodists now read and write almost as well as Episcopalians, as a group, and that Roman Catholics no longer need to be able to deal with Latin.* I am hopeful, but less confident, that these matters little affect political decisions these days.
But what about substantive differences outside the mainstream Christian and Jewish (Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) religions? How about Unitarians (who are not, by any definition of which I am aware "Christians," since they reject the doctrine of the Trinity and some are, gasp, Agnostics) and Mormons, considered heretical by many, if not most, Christian denominations? These differences appear to be problematical. And, I submit, they are relevant in the political process, however we might wish it were otherwise. True, Thomas Jefferson has been characterized, and even characterized himself, as essentially Unitarian, and Mormons have held high office, frequently elected office. Can we as voters consider these things? Of course we can. We can consider whatever we wish to consider, including a candidate's hairstyle, facial features, age, sex, religion, race and anything else. Despite our traditional freedoms of religion, we are also free to vote for or against someone on account of his religious views. Do we? I think it happens quite often. Should we? That is a different question.
I suppose we should, if the matter is very important to us and if we think, or even feel, that it makes a significant difference in the extent to which we trust a candidate to shape Government in accordance with our desires. To vote for a candidate whom one simply does not trust, for whatever reason, visceral or otherwise, is unlikely; nor is it particularly praiseworthy.
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.
The reason why I cannot tell.
But this I know and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.
To decide to vote for or against a candidate based on any single issue, particularly one which is very unlikely to affect the manner in which we are to be governed is, in my view, counterproductive. There are multiple important issues facing the country, and they are constantly changing. No single issue, no matter how much of a hot button issue it may be, is so important as to make all others inconsequential. Fortunately, the religious views of a candidate speak very weakly to how he will be able to deal with present issues, let alone issues which may arise during his term(s) of office. Even an adherent to the Aztec culture and its religious practices would unlikely try, or if he tried, be able, to institute human sacrifice to propitiate the gods and bring success to our nation's ventures. I would be rather unlikely to vote for him nonetheless, because his cultural values would be quite different from those with which I feel comfortable; that, I think, is a different matter. How about a Roman Catholic Presidential candidate who proclaimed "I believe all that the Church believes and the Church believes all that I believe, and I intend, if elected, to govern in strict accord with those beliefs?" I would have grave reservations about him, and would most likely not vote for him, since (a) I am not intimately familiar with the broad tapestry of Roman Catholic doctrine and and therefore would not understand whatever he might mean and (b) even if I were and did, a theocracy would not be to my liking. How about a Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian or Mormon who promised to govern in strict accord with the teachings of his religion? Ditto. Unitarian? I would feel more comfortable, since there are hardly any Unitarian doctrines and the statement would be so vague as to have little if any meaning; it would, most likely, be spoken in jest.
Where does this lead? To me it suggests that we should be as familiar as we can with the issues which we consider important, with the positions of the various candidates on those issues, with the character of the candidates as we perceive them, and that we should seriously consider the extent to which the candidates are likely to be able to implement whatever their proposals might be.
* It would be pretty neat if we could all deal with Latin, since grammar is rarely well taught in English classes, and I found that whatever grammar I may have learned came from my Latin classes in high school.