Religion and Politics:
A Prominent Politician Explains

by Jay Johansen
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It is commonly said in America today that people should not attempt to impose their religious beliefs on others through law. You could find many statements to that effect, but as an example let me use a quote from the 2004 presidential debates. I use this example because, (a) it is from a prominent politician representing a major party, so we're talking mainstream thought here, and (b) it is a convenient length: long enough to be more than a slogan while not so long that it's unmanageable.

So, during the third presidential debate between Senator Kerry and President Bush in 2004, the moderator mentioned that the Catholic Church has been critical of Mr Kerry because of his support for abortion. Mr Kerry replied:

I respect their views. I completely respect their views. I am a Catholic. And I grew up learning how to respect those views. But I disagree with them, as do many.

I believe that I can't legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn't share that article of faith.

I believe that choice is a woman's choice. It's between a woman, God and her doctor. And that's why I support that.

Now, I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade. The president has never said whether or not he would do that. But we know from the people he's tried to appoint to the court he wants to. I will not. I will defend the right of Roe v. Wade.

Now, with respect to religion, you know, as I said, I grew up a Catholic. I was an altar boy. I know that throughout my life this has made a difference to me. And as President Kennedy said when he ran for president, he said, "I'm not running to be a Catholic president. I'm running to be a president who happens to be Catholic. "

My faith affects everything that I do, in truth. There's a great passage of the Bible that says, "What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead." And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people. That's why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.

But I know this, that President Kennedy in his inaugural address told all of us that here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own. And that's what we have to -- I think that's the test of public service.

Please read the above statement carefully and then tell me: Does Mr Kerry believe it is right or wrong for a politician to adopt policies and push for laws that grow out of his religious beliefs?

At the beginning of his statement he clearly says "no": "What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn't share that article of faith." But then just a little later he says "sort of": "And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people." And he concludes by saying "yes": "God's work must truly be our own ... that's the test of public service."

The original question was about abortion. Mr Kerry starts out by saying that, yes, he realizes that the Catholic church officially opposes abortion, but "I disagree with them ..." Okay, he doesn't share the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion. Fair enough. Then he says, "I believe that I can't legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith." What article of faith was that? The one that you just said you didn't share? So Mr Kerry's position is that when it comes to imposing religion, he promises not to impose any religious beliefs that he disagrees with? Well, that's hardly a startling promise.

He then gives a list of some causes he believes in because of his faith: fighting poverty, protecting the environment, advancing equality and justice. Now, he has just finished saying that it would be wrong for the government to make laws against abortion because that is a matter of faith that some do not share. So when Mr Kerry makes clear that poverty and the environment and equality are matters of faith for him, does that mean that he believes that it would be equally wrong for the government to make laws against polluting the environment or for equality and justice? Obviously there are some people who do not share Mr Kerry's beliefs in the sanctity of the environment or the evils of racism, or we wouldn't need laws on these subjects: If everyone agreed, it wouldn't be an issue. So how can Mr Kerry impose his religious beliefs on the environment and justice, while at the same time condemning his opponent for imposing his religious beliefs on abortion?

It's a funny thing about liberals and "imposing religion". They believe that religious beliefs that they do not share -- like opposition to abortion and homosexuality -- are not fit subjects for law. These are off limits for public debate. But religious beliefs that they do share -- like opposition to racism and protecting God's creation -- should be enacted into law, and one of the best arguments for enacting them into law is that they are based on religious belief. "God's work must truly be our own ... that's the test of public service."


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30 Oct 2004.

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