On Religion & Politics in America

by on June 25th, 2008

Few issues in America are as contentious and divisive as religion, and the recently released study by the Pew Foundation on religion and public life is sure to reanimate the nation’s differences. Some of the findings merely confirm what most people intuitively know, for example, that overwhelming majorities have a belief in God, or, to characterize it in the parlance of our cultural cognoscenti, a supernatural being.

More nuanced are the findings that about seven in ten believe that many religions can lead to eternal life and that there is more than one interpretation of the teachings of their own religion. Of course, those beliefs fundamentally clash with the precepts of those religions, which is only to say that if all religions are equal, by what standard would one choose one over another. Moreover, it casts one’s thoughtfulness in a poor light if, after a lifetime of study and reflection, choosing Catholicism over a protestant religion is a difference without a distinction.

Another paradox is that although eight in ten believe in absolute standards, only a third said they turned to their religion’s teachings to set their own standards. A fascinating insight into the Obama-Reverend Wright controversy is that about half said churches should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, with that number rising to seven in ten for members of predominantly black churches.

The erosion of certainty in our most sacred beliefs is thoroughly consistent with the epistemic free-fall in which we find ourselves, where our post-modern consensus on the reality of relativism is the only one we seem capable of reaching. In that context it’s hardly surprising that by broad majorities people believe that no one religion–not even their own–enjoys an inside track on the road to heaven, or that their religion is more closely attuned to the nature of God. After all, in our brave new paradigm, absolutes have been redacted from our religious lexicon and therefore our beliefs are merely products of our own unique thinking.

Looking inside the study’s findings we might be disturbed by the fact that large percentages of people are reticent to apply the standards of their religion to their own lives, which logically leads one to question the sincerity or resilience of their beliefs. Indeed, for those who take this journey seriously, the trajectory of our religious development is always challenged by our moral shortcomings, and although religious demands are rigorous, presuming we are honest brokers of our own behavior, isn’t that what produces sanctified souls? If so, we can only imagine the internal reasoning people follow who endorse the standards of their religion but elect a different set to guide them through life’s moral maze.

As to the subject of churches addressing social and political issues, there is a wide range of views on this, but our take is that the application of precepts such as sacred Scripture or the Catechism of the Catholic Church to our politics and society is healthy to the degree it isn’t manipulated or distorted in service to a political end.

The obvious example is the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion. During the 2004 election, a debate raged after a number of Bishops said Democratic nominee John Kerry should be denied communion because he supports abortion. Religion generally, and Catholicism specifically, aren’t democratic institutions, which is to say they don’t conduct votes on their teachings. Moreover, although Catholic teaching addresses the notion of an ‘informed conscience’ and its ability to differ in certain matters with Church dogma, liberals tend to ignore the ‘informed’ element in this construction. ‘Informed’ means the conscience is predicated on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Magisterium, not ‘informed’ with the left’s notion of the refined elite, which is effectively above or beyond the moral reach of the Church.

The degree to which we’re willing to submit to a set of dogmatic principles–which is, after all, what defines religious belief–provides a kind of window into our souls, in both a civic and moral sense. Those on the left tend to impose their ego or will on their religion, insisting that it ought to adhere to each peculiar twist and turn in their moral being, while those on the right strive to empty themselves of the human preconditions that inhibit their ability to comply with their religion’s teachings.

That leads each of them to seek politicians who confirm their beliefs, with the left being drawn to Obama’s situational ethics and the right to McCain’s support of absolutes. It’s a debate that shows no sign of abating as we approach the November elections.

Mella is editor of ClearCommentary.com.

Philip Mella