February 29, 2012
Rick Santorum has certainly heated up discussions on the proper role of personal religious belief and the church in governing. From wanting to ‘throw up’ when listening to President Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state to alluding to President Obama’s “phony theology”. Although he may regret his choices of words, Mr. Santorum has arguably voiced the views of millions of Americans who share his feelings that our government’s laws and actions should be grounded in Christian precepts.
One can make a persuasive case that extreme care was taken to ensure that America’s national government would not advocate for one set of religious views over another. The issues raised by Mr. Santorum were raised extensively during discussions over the ratification of the Constitution itself. In the end, state Constitutional conventions not only approved a Constitution that only mentions religion in the context of prohibiting religious tests for office, but concomitantly insisted that the first U.S. Congress amend the Constitution to specifically preclude a blurring of secular and religious affairs. They understood that when one mixes religion with politics one gets politics. This is not to say, however, that governance should not be informed by the religious values held by its individual citizens. It precisely because of this dynamic that Constitutional limits were established regarding the ability of one religious faction to impinge on the expression of the religious values of another.
These limits, however, do not preclude the implementation of government programs that advance one’s religious values. President Bush, for example, was an ardent supporter of faith-based initiatives whereby religious groups partner with the government to provide services to the less fortunate. Analogously, one could argue that many government programs are but an extension of religious outreach. Government funding is used to ensure, for example, that charity –albeit funded by taxpayer dollars- is extended to broad segments of the population. As an example, the government’s food stamp program could be viewed as an admittedly imperfect extension of local religious group participation in food banks for the needy.
If this is the case, shouldn’t citizens vote for those who support government programs that align with their religious beliefs rather than those who argue for a greater formal role for religion in government? To this end, in 2008 the National Council of Churches- representing over 100,000 local Congregations and some 45 million parishioners- published ten principles for evaluating candidates that it hoped “all Christians - from liberals to conservatives - will study and apply in this election year. These included: ‘foreign policy based on cooperation and global justice’;’ reducing the disparity between the rich and the poor’;’ promotion of racial justice and equal opportunity’; ‘champion environmental justice’; ‘pursue fair immigration policies and speak out against xenophobia’; ‘provide adequate, affordable and accessible health care for all’; and ‘advocate for equal education opportunity and abundant funding for children’s services’. I would leave it to the reader to decide which political party agenda is best aligned with –in this case- Christian principles. My provocation rests in the belief that voters who are concerned with the role religion should play in government pay more attention to the degree to which government actions are aligned with religious values and less attention to the ‘need’ for closer ties between church and state.