Thursday, August 21, 2008

Faith and Politics, More Generally

OK, I have a question here for you, dear readers. But first, a little background.

California's Supreme Court recently determined that the state's restriction of legal marriage to same-sex couples violated the California Constitution. As a result, social conservatives have sponsored a popular referendum - CA loves those darn things - amending the Constitution to limit legal marriage to only heterosexual unions. The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - pretty much the top LDS brass - asked that a letter supporting the initiative be read at Mormon churches across the state.

So here's the question. Almost no one questions that faith plays a role in politics. What role, then, should religious organizations, such as the LDS First Presidency or the Southern Baptist Convention, play in politics? Should they use their influence to actively advocate for specific policy goals? Should they encourage political activism that articulates with the church's values, and leave it up to individuals to decide what the correct policy choices are? Should they just stay out of politics completely?

Sound off.

(Extra bonus question for the law people: to what extent may a religious group engage in political activism while maintaining its tax-exempt status?)

(Super extra bonus question for the LDS folks: would there be consequences for a church member who openly flouts the First Presidency on this issue?)


Matthew B. Novak said...

Personally, I think religious organizations should play as big a role as they want and are able. Religion is one of the fundamental and founding rights of our country. Personally, I don't let my Catholic faith define my political choices, and I've gotten very upset by some politically tinged sermons, but I've also found some to be quite enlightening, and my faith certainly informs my political choices, even if it doesn't define them. So basically, whatever influence it wants to and/or can exert is ok with me.

But I might be able to be convinced otherwise; that was just a gut reaction.

I don't know the extent that they're allowed to engage in political activism, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a difference between supporting a policy/initiative and supporting a candidate/party. Those seem quite different to me, and should be given different treatment. Though frankly, I think even supporting a candidate shouldn't lose the church it's tax exempt status.

And don't know about the LDS issue.

Mike said...

Every time I see the phrase "LDS", I think of Star Trek IV, where the crew lands in late-80s San Francisco and Captain Kirk has to explain Spock's behavior as, "He was a child of the 60s and I think he did a little too much LDS."

Anyway, my guy reaction is to say that any organization, religious or not, should be able to engage in political activism, partisan or otherwise, as much as they want. If people are blind enough to follow them, that's their problem.

But I, too, can probably be easily swayed. I never thought about it much beyond deciding that the politicization of Christianity did not sit well with my own personal views on the religion. (Maybe someday I'll finish my blog rant about religion as personal faith versus religion as hierarchical institution.)

Incidentally, when's the next "Election 2008" post coming? Also, who's your guess for VP? (Mine is Biden, and before you call me a bandwagon jumper note that he's been in my top 3 since Obama sealed the nom.)

-Dave said...

I think it's a question for the organizations themselves, at whatever level they vest the authority to make such decisions.

If they believe that their faith is best lived out by being active politically, then I think they should be true to it.

If they feel that their faith is better practiced on an interpersonal level, then I'd expect them to follow that.

Personally, I believe in a "my kingdom is not of this world" approach, so while I try personally to be the best citizen I can, I don't see political action as a primary outlet for my faith. I'd much rather have a church encouraging its members to feed the hungry and love their neighbors than have them telling their members to vote for an amendment concerning homosexual marriage.

Though as I understand it, marriage is much more central to the LDS faith than it is to mine... so I can understand if they see a more direct relationship in this case than I do.

Mike said...

"guy" reaction should be "gut" reaction. Though I suppose, since I'm a guy, it's also a "guy" reaction. But not really. Sorry for the extra post, but I hate when I commit typographical errors.

Jeff said...

Mike, it'll probably be Monday or so. I still haven't decided which issue to tackle next. I'll have to get cracking if I want to finish this before early voting starts, of course.

As pretty much a First Amendment absolutist, I like the idea that any group, churches included, should have the unfettered right to engage in political activism of any sort, at least from a legal perspective. I just worry about the coercive aspect of it, i.e. if they have the power to punish members based on their political actions. I don't think the LDS Church does, of course (else Harry Reid would have been out long ago). I guess to me it becomes inappropriate when, say, bishops are denying communion to candidates who support abortion rights. But perhaps that's a function of people having their religion tied too much to Earthly institutions...

jacob said...

Part of your question is about how religious organizations should guide themselves, and on that I have no comment.

For the legal question, throw me in with the First Amendment absolutists. Throw out FEC restrictions and let religious groups (and groups of all kinds) to run direct advocacy ads. Only potential restriction should be direct contributions to campaigns or parties, due to tax exempt issues.

Ben said...

I'm coming late to this discussion, but I'll just make two points. In writing these points, I find myself naturally slipping into discussions of Christianity and "church" instead of general religion and religious organizations. It's just easier for me to write from where I know, I guess:

1) The idea that religious organizations should butt out of politics is wrong and offensive. On the level of political theory, it doesn't jive with a pluralist understanding of democracy in which each group lends its voice to the marketplace of ideas and fights for its own interests/ideals. The idea that religious groups should stay out or that religious rhetoric has no place in politics is based on a warped understanding of the separation of church and state. To say that there should be no state religion and no endorsement of religion in government policy is NOT to say that religious voices are 2nd class in the marketplace of ideas. Nor is it to say that politicians and voters should not be motivated by religious considerations in the policies they endorse. People can and should support policies for all sorts of reasons, religious among them. To say that one opposes abortion or supports some policy intended to help the poor because of one's religious beliefs is NOT equal to saying the government should mandate school prayer or force everybody to become Christians.

From my point of view as a Christian, I think that Christians (and the church) are required to advance the Gospel values of love, peace, faith, and hope in every sphere....personal, political, the voting booth and the collection plate. Unlike Dave, I see no dividing line between political action and acts of charity, as long as they are devoted to the same end. (Dave, if you're still reading this, I think this might be a good place for me to start our debate over on your blog. You know, the one I haven't taken part in yet.) So, certainly, Christians (I won't presume to speak for other faiths) should get involved politically.

2) That said, a healthy dose of humility is also called for. I'm not exactly sure what form religious political activism should take. People in the same church should be free to disagree deeply on political issues and still worship the same God. As flawed creatures, we're bound to be wrong some of the time and bound to disagree. So church advocacy of a certain policy shouldn't become so writ in stone that people who disagree feel unwelcome.

On the other hand, churches should be a prophetic voice. Sometimes that means stating unpleasant truths and offending people. So I don't know where to draw the line. The best I can say is a willingness to boldly speak the truth...with humility.