Should Politics Exclude Religion?

I was perusing an article in the Washington Post the other day about Mitt Romney. The article was basically commenting on how Romney’s religious views could be a serious obstacle for him in the race for the presidency. The article was in the “Opinion” section of the paper, so the columnist had to interject his opinion, one, which, quite candidly, I could not disagree with more. He writes:

“Yet Romney’s faith should not matter. Presidents are elected for their policy views, leadership skills and character, not their soteriology. Such theological convictions about salvation may be infinitely important, but they are politically irrelevant. The whole “no religious test for office” idea remains a good one.”[1]

Interestingly, Mitt himself holds the same opinion which he declared on CNN not long ago.

I’m not sure Mr. Gerson (the author) or Mr. Romney see the contradiction here… How is it that he came to the conclusion that the “no religious test for office” was a good test? Was it not based on his belief that religion should not interfere with politics? Is that conviction not a matter of faith? Why should only religious beliefs be excluded from the political realm and not other kinds of beliefs?  What test is there to prove that such a conviction is justified? Either way, his argument is a kind of religious belief (as we will see in a moment).  His religion, whatever that is (maybe the absence of) says that politics is not in the sphere of religious conviction and that it ought not to be. That is a religious belief.

Somehow, there is this impression in America that there are parts of life that are above religion; that there are certain facts and ideas that stand outside the reach of “beliefs.” Beliefs in this sense would be any conviction that is not based on provable, empirical fact; anything that cannot be readily observed and tested. If it can’t be proven or tested (by some kind of scientific method), then we can’t consider it a reliable conviction. The problem with this definition of beliefs, however, is that it falls on its own sword. The belief that all beliefs which cannot be empirically proven are thus politically irrelevant (or nonsense) is itself a belief that cannot be tested and must therefore be considered politically irrelevant.

I don’t doubt Mr. Gerson’s good intentions, and, he is simply reflecting the status quo in most places in America today.

There is, I think, a great fear in America of “extremism” that forces or compels religion upon others. Many are cautious and very concerned to not aggravate this fear. Such a concern is noble, in a way; however, this article seems to advocate the opposite extreme view that government should exclude religion. Both extremes, compelling religion and excluding religion, are serious errors.

It is my contention in this brief blog post to say that the attempt to exclude religion from politics (or to say that one doesn’t have anything to do with the other) is, quite frankly, impossible. Unfortunately, there are many in our culture today advocating such views, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It also seems that this is the view held by the majority of people today in our increasingly secular society. Here are a few reasons why I think (and others) this view to be bankrupt:[2]

(1) All legislation, all political policy views, and all governmental structure are built upon religious conviction of one kind or another. Wayne Grudem phrases it this way: This view “fails to distinguish the reasons for a law from the content of the law.” He gives an example: “All major religions have teachings against stealing, but laws against stealing do not ‘establish a religion.’ … The campaign to abolish slavery in the United States and England was led by many Christians, based on their religious convictions but laws abolishing slavery do not ‘establish a religion.’”[3] Our governments laws, such as the ones Grudem mentions above, were passed based on some kind of religious conviction, however, that does not mean that they are therefore, “religious” laws. Iran has religious laws based on Islamic Sharia law; it is codified religious law that is forced upon the entire populace. And, as most of us know, that is very different than what we have here in the United States.

(2) The argument is based on a wrong interpretation of the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The common understanding of this clause in today’s world seriously confuses the distinction between legislating morality and legislating religion. Morality and religion are different animals. “All laws, by their very nature, declare one behavior to be right and another to be wrong. We need laws to maintain a safe and functioning society. So the only question is, ‘Whose morality do we legislate?’”[4] Ironically, the loudest protestors of legislating morality believe it is morally wrong for others to legislate morality. They are, in effect, imposing on everyone else the moral conviction that moral convictions should not be imposed on everyone.[5] This irony exposes the simple fact that you can’t avoid legislating morality. The Establishment Clause was only intended to prevent the government from legislating a particular denomination or religion, something altogether different from morality.

(3) It overrides the will of the people. Grudem gives an example of how a court in Colorado overruled a 52% majority vote supporting a constitutional amendment regarding marriage. These people used religious reasons to decide how they would vote, which the court therefore deemed not “rational.” The vote in favor of amending the constitution to say that marriage was a union between one man and one woman was thus overturned because those voters were influenced by their Christian beliefs. The same procedure occurred in Iowa and California. In this case, the will of the people, expressed through a democratic vote, was overridden because of the courts understanding of the meaning the Establishment Clause.[6] This is decidedly not democratic. Because of their interpretation of this clause the Democratic process is breaking down. What is most disturbing is their failure to see that those who voted against the amendment did so because of their religious convictions too.

(4) It ignores the history and context of our own nation’s founding. The Declaration of Independence was essentially the moral statement that later became the foundation for the Constitution of our new nation. As Geisler and Turek point out: “Through [the Declaration ], our founders confirmed that establishing a morality was unavoidable, for the declaration itself establishes a morality, and that morality was derived from the Moral Law—the law not everyone obeys, but the law by which everyone expects to be treated. Since they believed that the king had violated the ‘self-evident’ morality, the founders were ready to pay the ultimate price to restore it. The last line of the Declaration contains these words: ‘And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.’ In other words, the founders believed so strongly in the right to establish morality through legislation that they promised to die for it.”[7] Wayne Grudem too hits on this saying: “…the ‘exclude religion from politics’ view would invalidate the very reasoning of the Declaration of Independence, on which the United States of America was first founded… the fifty-six signers of the Declaration proclaimed that both the laws of nature and God himself gave our country the right to become an independent nation. They are claiming divine authorization for the very existence of the United States of America!”[8]

(5) It ignores the fundamental nature of the state. The state is basically an extension of the family. Many who advocate the view that religion and politics should remain separate, believe religion to be a kind of private matter that should be kept locked-up in your home and not discussed in the public square. But again, not only is this impossible, but it is self-defeating. As J. C. Ryle once wrote: “Nations are nothing but a collection of families.”[9] John Frame also notes that the “borderline between family and state is not sharp or clear.” And “What we call ‘state’ is simply a certain level of complexity in the government of a large family.”[10] If this is true, then why do politicians and liberal media insist on religious beliefs remaining a private, family matter? If the government is, in a sense, an extension of the family, should not religious matters be freely expressed and exercised there too? Why this dichotomy? Grudem says that the “exclude religion” view “changes freedom of religion into freedom from religion.”[11] The state, which was initially the protector and advocate of the family has become its enemy. The values that the vast majority of families in America hold are not allowed in the public square! They are “protecting” them from their own values! In fact, the direction of legislation in this country is leading us towards non-existence. Abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia are all extermination programs; their acceptance essentially means our demise (they all undermine human reproduction). Ironically, the same reason murder is illegal (the inherent dignity and worth of man) is the same reason that these other destructive realities are sanctioned by our government (the dignity and worth of man).[12] This is the epitome of anti-family, yet, the state was born out of the nuclear family…

Though I am not political guru, I simply felt that the comment in the Washington Post needed to be addressed.  I feel that Mr. Gerson has erred rather seriously here, as have many others today.  In my humble opinion, matters of faith are not all that matter when it comes to political issues, but they are very important. And, what is more, the two are wed; there simply can be no politics without faith.


[2] Some of these reasons are adapted from Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

[3] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 31.

[4] Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, Legislating Morality: Is it Wise? Is it Legal? Is it Possible? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 41-42.

[5] Geisler and Turek, Legislating Morality, 42.

[6] See Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 31-32.

[7] Geisler and Turek, Legislating Morality, 20.

[8] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 32.

[9] J. C. Ryle, Matthew: Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. Crossway Classic Commentaries. Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer, eds (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 168.

[10] See John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life. A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 596-599.

[11] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 32.

[12] The only difference here is that secular humanists argue that abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia are legitimate practices because man should have freedom of choice.  Christians would say that man’s worth comes from his being made in the image of God, whereas most liberals today would say that it comes from the mere fact that man is man.

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