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Washington Post’s dueling visions of religion in politics

August 15, 2007, 11:40 am | Posted by Dan Nejfelt

Two columnists, two candidates, two visions of religion in the 2008 campaign.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen bemoans the publicity of presidential candidates’ religions and commends Rudy Giuliani for telling reporters that his standing as a “good or not so good catholic” was between him and the priests. The column is called “Giuliani’s JFK Moment” and praises Kennedy’s 1960 campaign declaration that his Catholicism would not dictate his decisions. Cohen marvels that

Kennedy made two other points in that speech that bear repeating. The first was that “far more critical issues” faced the country than a presidential candidate’s religion. The same, of course, is true today. Just for starters, there’s an agonizing war in Iraq that needs to end in a fashion that will not turn a mistake into a debacle — for Iraq, for the region and for the security of Americans here in the United States.

But second, and to my mind just as important, Kennedy’s speech was an affirmation of rational thought — a promise to deal with the great issues of state in a secular manner. Nowhere in the speech did JFK renounce his Catholicism or say it didn’t matter to him. But he did make clear that as president he would make decisions in “accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest.” In other words, he would use his noodle.

Cohen implies that to think rationally and to consult one’s conscience are distinct from and even incompatible with using one’s faith as a moral compass. Personally, I’d like to know if a Catholic candidate accepted the Catholic stance on the war, and if a Southern Baptist accepted that church’s position. If they disagree, I’d like to know how they reconcile dissent and faith. That might be a pretty clear window into a candidate’s conscience and “how he would use his noodle.”

Contrast this with Post columnist Michael Gerson‘s understanding of the role of faith in political decision making (from an August 3 column):

American political leaders have generally not talked about soteriology — how the individual soul is saved. In Christian theology, these choices are fundamentally private, and government attempts to influence them are both doomed and tyrannical. American leaders have also wisely avoided the topic of eschatology — inherently speculative theories about the end or culmination of history.

But religious convictions on the topic of anthropology– the nature and value of men and women — have profoundly and positively influenced American history. Many of the greatest advances toward the protection of minority rights, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, came in part because people of faith pushed for them. And religious men and women made those efforts because they were convinced that all human beings — not just all believers — are created in God’s image.

The difference between Cohen’s simplistic, ahistoric vision of faith in the political arena and Gerson’s nuanced, historical understanding is obvious and fundamental. Every day I scour the political headlines while putting together Faith In Public Life’s daily news (click here to subscribe!), and from what I see, it’s clear that Gerson’s view is gaining traction as Cohen’s fades into the pages of history.


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