Saturday, December 3, 2011

Religion and politics - part 7

This post, part 7 in my series on Religion and Politics, addresses the importance of a candidate’s character from a Christian perspective.

Samuel Adams, one of the nation’s founders, remarked, “The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men.” Questions about the character of politicians range from sexual morality (Kennedy, Clinton) to public integrity (Nixon).

In other words, the issue of character is not easily reducible to the narrow issue of a candidate’s personal religion. Roman Catholicism functioned as a barrier to election as president of the United States until 1960 when Kennedy defeated Nixon. The religious barrier will continue to crumble, perhaps with the election of the first Mormon president and probably someday with the election of a Jewish or atheist president.

A president’s theological commitments seem irrelevant to me. The United States is, thankfully, a secular democracy with the free exercise of religion. Whether a president believes in God and most of what the president believes about God have little bearing on how that person will fulfill the duties of the office.

However, a president’s ethical commitments – reflected in his/her rhetoric and measured by his/her behavior – is of critical importance. A president who does not tell the truth or seek to keep promises is both untrustworthy and unworthy of election. (Whether deceit has a role in foreign affairs is a separate topic, not directly related to the general principles of truth telling and promise keeping. Relying on deceit (e.g., a military feint or spying) can save lives as warfighting and peacekeeping tactics.)

The five constellations of values identified in my last post (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity) provide a helpful paradigm for assessing candidates for political office. Although I illustrate this utility by considering a hypothetical candidate for federal office, the paradigm also is useful for assessing the character of state and local candidates.

1.    Does the candidate’s past performance reflect a pervasive commitment to harm/care (nonmaleficence and beneficence) for all creation?

2.    Does the candidate’s past performance exhibit a consistent support for fairness/reciprocity (i.e., justice in its commutative, distributive, and legal aspects)?

3.    Based on prior votes and behavior, to who is the candidate loyal? Does the candidate equally support the well-being of all people regardless of externalities such as gender, race, gender orientation, nationality, religion, wealth, political contributions, etc.?

4.    Does the candidate’s past performance indicate unflagging respect for all and consistent reliance on ethical norms broadly accepted as authoritative?

5.    Does the candidate seek to model those values, recognizing that all candidates are people and therefore tainted with sin?

Unlike the stock market, past performance is an indicator of future performance in the case of politicians (and all humans, for that matter). Character forms early in a person’s life. Transformation is possible, but most character change is incremental. Yesterday’s person probably greatly resembles the character of today and of tomorrow.

My phrasing of the five value sets emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ injunction to love one’s neighbor not having boundaries. Stanford research fellow and political scientist Tod Lindberg believes:

The political teaching of Jesus is a fully realized account of universal freedom. This freedom is constituted by each person’s acceptance of the equal freedom of everyone else. Acceptance takes on the practical, everyday form of treating others the way you would like to be treated. (The Political Teachings of Jesus, 233)

Not all ethical commitments are of equal importance for politicians. Bill Clinton’s philandering set a poor example of fidelity in a committed relationship and injured his wife and daughter. His lying about his philandering became a legitimate national issue. Lying erodes the trust that is essential for a healthy, functional society. Defending himself against the allegations of malfeasance that resulted from his lying became a major preoccupation of the Clinton administration that adversely affected its ability to focus on important issues and its ability to muster power in support of its views and proposed policies regarding those issues. As that example emphasizes, drawing a tidy distinction between what some term private and public morality is impossible. Ethical issues that influence the public’s well-being are directly relevant for political discourse.

This extended series of posts on Religion and Politics began by defining politics and state (part 1), examining the reasons for the dissatisfaction with the current political process manifested in the Occupy and Tea Party movements (part 2), and then examining the theological (part 3) and ethical principles (part 4) important for articulating a Christian perspective on politics. Part 5 discussed various models of church-state relationships, emphasizing the intertwined nature of politics and religion. Part 6 explored the moral gulf that separates liberals and conservatives in much contemporary public discourse and this installment assessing the character of candidates for political office. The final post will answer the question, Was Jesus a politician?

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