An op-ed piece in yesterday’s paper raised some important issues concerning religion and the unfortunate fall of Mark Souder. The article, by E. J. Dionne, pointed out that Souder once said, “To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do.” This pointed affirmation of faith is precisely the dilemma of a democratic system that allows for freedom of religion. All religions (those that are serious attempts to deal with the supernatural, in any case) are defined by the conviction that their practices, their beliefs, their ethics, are correct. When a religious individual is elected, or even converted after election, in a democratic system their religion is given power. With their faith they vote on issues that cut across religious boundaries, binding those who do not agree to their personal faith stance by law.
Europe in the Middle Ages is perhaps the most obvious example of what might happen when one religious body (in that case, the Roman Catholic Church) gains excessive political power. Problem is, these days folks don’t agree on which is the right religion. America was not founded as a Christian nation, let alone an evangelical Neo-Con one. It has become, perhaps because of this fact, one of the most actively religious nations in the developed world. As befits a consumer mentality, religions are offered in a marketplace. Within Christianity alone there are aisles and aisles of churches from which to choose. When a public servant is elected and her or his religion dictates their votes, have we not just lost freedom of religion?
Teaching for many years in a seminary is a sure way of becoming aware of the limited training that religious leaders generally receive (if any). The short time they spend being educated does not equip them to think through all the implications of their convictions. They attain the pulpit and the congressional leaders who happen to be in their congregations receive an inchoate theology confused by their three years earning a “Master of Divinity” degree. Not all are equal to the task. Those religious leaders with promise, often because of internal church politics, end up in smaller venues, their voices effectively silenced. Those with the most strident voices reach larger congregations, often without the humility of admitting that the more you learn about theology they less you know. Their congregants, armed with faulty perceptions of their own religion, burst into their congressional chambers full of conviction based on problematic conceptions. It is a very serious dilemma.
Perhaps what is needed is an oath of office for politicians rather like the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Perhaps they should swear to put their own religious outlooks in check while considering social issues on which their constituents vary widely. Perhaps their integrity in truly representing the population they govern would lessen the impact of their inevitable personal foibles. And naturally, this oath would not be superstitiously sworn with a hand on the Bible.