Rep. David Price on Religion & Politics

While reading up on Religion and Politics, in preparation for a discussion I have been tasked to lead, I came across a wonderful exchange in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s website. A transcript for One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics. Held almost five years ago but still rather timely, the panel included North Carolina Congressman David Price, Indiana Congressman Mark Souder, David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, Jr. It is an excellent conversation and I am struck by the intelligence and humility of Price’s arguments. While I might not agree with everything he said (more on that later), I think it is worth sharing.

Good morning. This has been a productive discussion. I’m happy to be able to be a part of taking it to the next stage today. And I’m impressed with the turnout, with the diversity and interest of the group here, and I’m looking forward to the morning.

There’s a basic assumption that underlies the exchange between Mark Souder and Mario Cuomo and the interlocutors (he is referring to the genesis of this panel, an exchange between the congressman and former New York governor). The basic assumption is that religious faith will and should shape political action. And there really isn’t any serious dispute to that proposition, at least in my perception. Religion – our faith, our traditions – are central to the motivations that draw us into politics and central to the shape that our political advocacy assumes once we’re in politics.

Now, beyond that basic proposition there are substantial differences, and I want to just highlight a few of those this morning. First, I want to address this leading question, which is at the heart of the Cuomo-Souder exchange, and that is not whether our religious faith should shape our political advocacy, but exactly when and how should it do so? When and how should we attempt to translate religiously grounded precepts into civil law, to be more specific?

Now, Governor Cuomo has a suggestion. He says that we should attempt to do this when those religious precepts connect with broader and more universal values. When should we not try? His answer is, when the religious precept is largely confined to a specific tradition or specific traditions and/or enacting it would violate the spirit if not the letter of the Establishment Clause. In my essay I suggested another condition: that our religiously grounded approval or disapproval of certain behaviors, when it comes to translations into civil law, needs to respect democratic values; that religiously inspired disapproval of certain behaviors, for example, shouldn’t be translated into laws that violate basic democratic values such as civil liberty, nondiscrimination, and equal opportunity.

Now, you may have conditions of your own. Those are some suggestions. What I’m afraid is missing from Mark Souder’s presentation (taken from a fundamentalist viewpoint) is any indication of where he would draw the line. Is there any area of religious belief and religious conviction that it’s inappropriate to translate into civil law? Is there any example that can be given of an establishment of religion that would be inappropriate? I’m sure there is, but we do need to talk about that and talk about those limits, because those limits, in our republic, do exist and should exist.

Now, Mark and Roberto Suro, and other interlocutors in this discussion, bridle at the kind of limitations that I’m proposing and that Governor Cuomo is proposing. They don’t necessarily tell us where they would draw the line in legislating religiously based precepts. They scoff at attempts to find common ground, dismissing such widely-shared beliefs as least common denominators or watered-down precepts. Well, I’d suggest to you that our founders, the founders of this country, would have been astounded at that notion.

My daughter, a few years ago, was asked to write an essay for her college application asking, “What’s the most politically powerful idea of the 20th century?” And I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this – I actually thought she did a really good job – (laughter) – because what she wrote was, the most politically powerful idea of the 20th century is exactly the most politically powerful idea of the 18th century and the 19th century, namely the idea of the American founding: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the basic human values around which a society is to be organized. Wasn’t that a good answer? And remember, the appeal was to nature and nature’s God. The appeal was to universalistic values which were shared across traditions.

Wouldn’t it come as news to Frederick Douglass, who appealed to precisely those universalistic values in making the case against slavery – wouldn’t it come as news to him that that’s a least common denominator, that it’s watered down, that it’s impotent? Wouldn’t it come as news to Martin Luther King? Since when have these universal human values around which the American experiment has been organized represented some kind of pale reflection of the values we’re committed to that give us no convincing basis for political action, or for that matter for political argument?

Now, a lot of this discussion does focus on the issue of abortion, and I would grant at the outset that abortion is a complicated borderline case. Some of the opposition to abortion is not necessarily based on distinctive theological doctrines. I would grant that. The essay that most directly addresses this is Robert George’s essay on “Cuomological” fallacies in the book. (Laughter.) I’ve also observed, however, that very few people talk about, reason about, argue about what George calls “prenatal homicide” and “postnatal homicide” in equivalent terms (in fact, if he does this, he would be the first I’ve ever observed to do it). At the very least, they seem to always propose different punishments for the two.

Now, Governor Cuomo is saying that in his view, abortion is a sufficiently problematic issue, in terms of mainly proceeding from theologically grounded premises, that he prefers in this area not to translate convictions into civil law, including his own convictions, but to leave individual conscience free. Now, I suggest to you that that’s a defensible position. It’s not the only legitimate position. We can and we should debate this issue in broader terms. I would say, though, if we’re going to do that, that neither side should treat theological assertions and theological beliefs as a conversation stopper. There needs to some engagement on broader grounds such as the presence of what we regard as life. And I would suggest to my friend Mark that, yes, that’s a scientific issue; it also is a theological issue. There are many ways in which the abortion issue needs to be engaged, including competing personal liberties. So while I think Governor Cuomo is on solid ground in demurring on that issue, it’s certainly not the only position that could be taken.

Secondly, I hope we can attend in this ongoing discussion to the peculiar phenomenon of competing agendas. If you haven’t noticed, people of faith seem to have very different lists of what issues they think should be brought into the public arena with the benefit of religious conviction, the backing of religious conviction. Mark’s list in his essay is abortion, same-sex relationships, gambling, pornography, evolution across species. Other people have other lists: questions of war and peace, capital punishment, world hunger, American hunger, poverty, inequalities and abuses of wealth and power, and on and on.

I think most of us would grant that religious faith can and should speak to this full gamut of issues. I assume we would also think that people of faith can disagree on these issues, that your argument is not predisposed by the agenda you latch onto, but that in religious terms we can have profound disagreements, for example, about the question of same-sex relationships that’s currently before the Congress. The religious arguments don’t all point in one direction.

But I think the fact that we seem so selective in the agendas we put forward ought to occasion some soul-searching. We need to be honest with ourselves and with each other that maybe the selection of an agenda is itself a matter of religious conviction, but maybe not entirely. Maybe there are other factors, other interests, some element of political comfort or discomfort, that are entering into that choice, leading us not only to ‘lead with our strength,’ you might say, but also to put some other issues on the back burner. If so, that’s a matter of concern, and I think in this discussion it’s a matter of honesty with ourselves and with each other as to how these agendas get formed and what we are willing to address.

Thirdly and finally, I do believe that there are some theologically grounded counsels of restraint that should inform this debate. I called it humility in my essay, picking up on Brent Walker’s comment in the original discussion. But in any event, I’m talking – and I want to underscore this – I’m talking here not about some kind of secularly based view that religiously grounded convictions have no business in the public arena. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying on the contrary that there are theological reasons for humility, for refusing to identify our own power, our own program – or anyone else’s –with God’s will.

I think those theological foundations are two-fold. The first is the voluntaristic character of religious obedience. This discussion goes, of course, way, way back, perhaps most famously Thomas Aquinas: is it the business of law to make men good? We know the answer to that is complicated. We also know ultimately that in Christian and Jewish teaching, goodness is the product of a clean heart, of a good will. There is not the slightest hint in the teachings of Jesus that goodness can be externally imposed. He taught by inspiration and example. Religious obedience is voluntary. We all know the old arguments saying you can’t legislate morality. I don’t accept that; I didn’t accept it in the civil rights years and I don’t accept it now. There are useful things that the law can do. There are times when widely shared values, many of them religiously grounded, should be translated into civil law. But we need to always have that sense, I believe, that ultimately religious faithfulness is not a matter of obeying civil law, or indeed of obeying a law of any sort. It’s a matter of good will, good faith, and that creates an inherent limitation to whatever we attempt to do in politics and whatever we claim for politics.

And then finally, there is that matter of human sinfulness – not just that it’s hard to understand what scripture dictates, not just that we’re fallible, but that we’re sinful. And goodness knows, there ought to be enough human history to convince us that it is a very, very dangerous thing for any group or any individual to claim the divine mantle, to identify his own program or policy or power with God’s will. The American statesman who best understood this was Abraham Lincoln in that wonderful Second Inaugural. You’ll notice in this volume many quotations of Abraham Lincoln, and of Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom made this a central part of their view, of their presentation to the American people, of the kind of role religious faith should play in politics: a counsel of humility, a warning based on religious faith regarding any attempt to institutionalize religious values in political life.

So there is a religious humility that our faith traditions counsel, grounded in awareness of human sinfulness and divine transcendence. That, I believe, should be central to this debate, as well as the conscientious effort to translate our deeply held values into public policy. The power of the Lincoln example is how he combined this humility on the one hand – this recognition that ultimate judgment belongs to God alone – with, on the other hand, the strength and the determination to pursue the right as he saw the right. It is a remarkable combination. It is absolutely, I think, integral to our religious traditions, almost miraculously embodied in that Second Inaugural, uttered while the war was still going on. That, I think, is a text in American history that should inspire us and warn us, providing a counsel of restraint, as we pursue this debate.

Thank you.

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