When There Is Too Much Religion In Politics

Deal W. Hudson
March 2, 2008

Next week, my defense of religion in politics – Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States – will be published by Simon & Schuster. This book is both a history and apologia of religious conservatives in politics over the past 30 years. But this primary season has led me to the conclusion that my book needs one more chapter: “When There Is Too Much Religion in Politics.”

Between the attention paid to religion by the media and the constant playing to religious voters by the candidates, even a sympathetic observer might be thinking enough is enough.

Consider the case of former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee. He made the following statement at the debate before the Michigan primary on January 14:

I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the Word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do, to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view (emphasis added).

Huckabee was arguing in favor of two proposed constitutional amendments that I support: the Human Life Amendment (which would protect unborn life) and the Federal Marriage Amendment (which would keep marriage between a man and a woman).

However, to evoke “God’s standards” in a political setting can be dangerous for two reasons. First, it’s bad politics in terms of gaining broad support. What about those voters who don’t believe in God, much less His “standards”? Those voters will wonder, rightly, if Huckabee has anything to say to them.

But beyond merely winning votes, a man of faith in politics should treat our political realm for what it is – the pursuit of the common good through representative government. Politics is not crypto-religion, and it’s not about calling voters to salvation. Personal beliefs, therefore, should be translated into a secular rationale capable of convincing everyone, regardless of faith (or lack of it).

Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with a declaration of personal faith and beliefs in politics; religious conservatives have fought hard to make this an acceptable part of our public life. What I mean by “too much religion in politics” is what occurs when people of faith treat their religious convictions as the end, rather than the beginning, of the argument.

St. Anselm once described faith as something always “in search of understanding.” To hear Huckabee on this particular night in Michigan, you would think he considered “God’s standards” as self-evident as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Throughout the primary campaigns, Dan Gildoff, the politics editor of Beliefnet.com, has been updating his “God-o-Meter,” assigning ratings to each candidate based upon his or her “God talk.” At first, I found the exercise of sneering in tone, but I began to appreciate the gesture as certain candidates took every opportunity to remind us of their faith.

Gildoff has ranked the candidates on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest “theocrat” rating. Huckabee’s clocking in at a nine is no surprise, but what is surprising is that Hillary Clinton ties with him. Obama, Romney, and Richardson came in a close second at an eight. Given that the Baptist minister Huckabee was lacing his stump speeches with biblical references, it’s not insignificant that Clinton would tie him, with Obama right behind. GOP nominee John McCain comes in close to the bottom with a four, which clearly explains some of his problems with Dr. James Dobson and other leaders of the Christian Right.

After the 2004 election, the Democratic Party leadership worried that it was perceived as suffering from a “God gap” and not being “faith-friendly.” If Gildoff’s ratings are credible – and I believe they are – we will be going into a presidential campaign where the Democratic candidate has been talking about God twice as much as the Republican.

In this respect, the McCain candidacy may be a gift to the GOP. McCain will provide a cooling-off period for “movement” religious conservatives. The Mike Huckabee of the 2008 campaign was simply over the top in his posturing for Evangelical voters. Huckabee in 2012, I predict, will not advocate amending the Constitution according to “God’s standards” and will not rate as highly on Geldof’s God-o-Meter. (Further, Romney in 2012 won’t be making any grand statements on the subject of America’s “symphony of faith,” as he did at College Station in December; his campaign went downhill from there.)

If religious conservatives are to be successful in politics, they need to spend more time studying natural law and less time worrying about the millennial matters. They know little about the former, and what they know about the latter won’t change anything.

Some religious conservatives will object, saying that believers should speak the truth regardless of the venue – whether a political rally, a schoolroom, or a pulpit. But the pursuit of truth should never be an excuse for showing a lack of respect for others. Understanding what the political order is, and what it is not, shows respect for human dignity, as was discussed in the Vatican’s “Declaration on Human Freedom”:

Truth… is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication, and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.

Merely declaring a law to be right because it conforms to “God’s standard” may begin political discourse, but it should not end it. In such a case, a politician relies too much on his God talk and too little on “faith seeking understanding.”

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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