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On the Eve of the Speech, Some Reflections on Faith and Politics

December 5th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Tomorrow, Mitt Romney gives his speech articulating his view on the intersection of faith and politics.
The issue has prompted a lot of thought on the role of faith and politics.  Two of the best comments came from Ross Douthat and Matthew Yglesias at The Atlantic.
Ross Douthat: 

I've spent a perhaps-inordinate amount of time defending the idea that it's reasonable to vote against a candidate because of his religious beliefs, and with that in mind I think it’s perfectly understandable that evangelical Christians would feel more comfortable voting for Huckabee than for Romney because they share a theological bedrock with the one and not the other. (In this vein, I like Matt's comments about how he wouldn't vote for a Jew for Jesus if there were other candidates on offer.) But these sort of choices, however understandable on an individual level, are problematic when they start defining a political coalition: The more religious conservatives appear to be treating theological issues, rather than the political issues they inform, as crucial election-season litmus tests, the more they’ll shrink their tent (there are a lot more Mormons than Jews for Jesus in the United States), alienate potential friends, and provide ammunition to the theocracy-shouters.

Matthew Yglesias:

Like most Jewish Americans, I'm perfectly reconciled to the fact that there are all these Christians running around and I think I harbor no prejudice against them. But I really don't care for "Jews for Jesus." The problem isn't that Jews for Jesus aren't real Jews; the problem is that they aren't real Jews but insist on saying they are. Now if faced with the choice between a Democratic Jew for Jesus promising universal health care (yes! even via a mandate), fully auctioned carbon permits, an end to the war in Iraq, a grand bargain with Iran, etc. and a conservative Republican or Joe Lieberman or what have you, sure, I'd cast a ballot for someone who's religious views bug me. But given the choice between a Jew for Jesus and a plausible alternative candidate, I think I'd go for the plausible alternative. Insofar as there are orthodox Christians out there thinking they'd rather not vote for a Mormon along similar lines, I can certainly sympathize with that, especially since the best case one can make for Romney on the merits is that maybe he doesn't believe any of the things he's saying.

For the opposite perspective, see Charlie Lehardy's post.

The question of what's fair game in politics is certainly a contentious issue.  I am still wondering how a commitment to religious knowledge--that is, to the idea that religion is a source of truth, rather than as a source of warm fuzzy feelings or personal moral guidance--affects the interaction between faith and politics.

To put it in question form, can evangelicals who wish to resist the relegation of their faith from the public square, who wish to have their Christianity viewed as a source of knowledge, vote for someone who does the opposite and still maintain their principle that religion is a source of knowledge (a principle worth maintaining!)?  It is a question for which I do not have a good answer.
The irony, of course, is that the marginalization of faith to the private realm--the preferred tactic of Romney's defenders--stems from the post-modernism that drives identity politics.  It suggests that we live in a two-tiered reality (Francis Schaeffer's famous 'two-story house' is the appropriate metaphor), with private religious truths on the one hand, and public secular truths on the other.

But Christianity--along with the world's other major religions--claims to be much more than a 'private faith'.  It purports to be the key to the single, unified, manifold reality, and as such, is subject to public scrutiny.  Our Bible is not an esoteric document the truths of which are available only to those "in the know."  Though he probably rejected it more fiercely than anyone in history, Friedrich Nietzsche can hardly be said to have misunderstood Christianity.
Those who have accused Huckabee's supporters of playing identity politics, then, while simultaneously refusing religion a place in the public squre are deeply inconsistent in their approach to politics.  In calling out the post-modern speck in their political neighbors' eye, they have missed the plank in their own.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.