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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sharron Angle and What's Good for the Goose

On the New Republic's blog, Jonathan Chait has a short post that is overdone but makes a valid point.  He notes that Sharron Angle, the tea-party-backed GOP Arizona [Correction: Nevada.  Either way, it's a dry heat.] senatorial candidate, in an interview with the National Review, credits God (and Mark Levin) for her primary win, saying that "[m]ost everything has a providential side in American history."  She then addresses criticisms of her fervent support of questionable prison rehab programs run by front groups for the Church of Scientology, denying that she is a Scientologist but adding: "What we’re seeing here is a very slippery slope. Whenever religion becomes the focal point — we saw this during John F. Kennedy’s race and also, to some degree, in Mitt Romney’s race — whenever this becomes the focus, we Americans should be very, very concerned. We have a First Amendment that guarantees us all the right to worship as we please. We as Americans should, even if we don’t agree, should defend their right to have that right. It shouldn’t come into play in any political arena."  Summarizing her views, Chait writes: "Since the program was essentially created by a religious cult, we can't question her support for it without threatening the church-state divide. Meanwhile, God wanted her to win."

As I said, I think Chait's suggestion of hypocrisy is overdrawn.  But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a point.  In my view, Angle is welcome to credit God for her victory, and I can hardly say she's wrong.  She is also welcome to invoke God, and does: in a speech at the National Press Club, she said she had brought to Washington her Smith & Wesson, God, and her husband, in that order.  When it comes to religion and politics, though, within or beyond the First Amendment, it is not possible to invoke religion as a qualification and then invoke religious freedom as a get-out-of-jail-free card.  For one thing, people don't just question the Scientologists' rehab program because it derives from Scientology: they also doubt its efficacy and even its safety.  For another, if she believes voters have a right to know about her faith, and that she has a right to tell them, then voters must be equally free to question her faith.  They must be free to question whether she is a Scientologist, and even to vote against her on that basis, although I think that charge seems unfair (it is more accurate to say that Scientologists have their own, perhaps valid and certainly constitutionally protected, reasons for supporting politicians of all religious stripes).  And they must be free to question why she supports either that faith or its programs.  For that matter, they are welcome to question whether any Christian in good standing would do so.

I am not encouraging these questions.  I am suggesting, however, that you can't take the sweet without the bitter.  If, I as I believe is true, one is and must be free to invoke religion as a qualification for office and as a vital part of one's background and character, then it must be equally permissible to engage in either sectarian or generalized criticism of a candidate's religious faith, from an internal or an external perspective.  We do religion no favors by excluding it from public discourse; but we do it no favors either by treating it with kid gloves. 


Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 15, 2010 at 12:13 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Agreed, but there's an obligation to understand the complexities and nuances of someone's religious faith before trying to critique it. E.g., it is unfair to assume that someone who self-identifies as "Christian" is necessarily a Biblical literalist to be ridiculed for believing the earth really was created in seven days.

Posted by: PG | Jun 15, 2010 1:24:02 PM

PG, I'm sympathetic to your obligation, but would be cautious about how I put it. It is certainly common sense and good etiquette for any conversation or debate to try to actually understand and engage with the other. In this sense, religion is no different from any other issue that may divide two people, and about which one or both individuals may be partially or wholly ignorant. I don't believe that the obligation is any different where religion is involved, however; the subject may be more sensitive, but the basic obligation is the same and is no greater or lesser. I might add that I would hope that the initial speaker -- the one who invokes God or some other value or belief -- is also aware of the complexities and nuances of his or her position. I don't think the entire burden lies with the respondent; many people who invoke some value, including religious values, often do so without a sufficient appreciation for the nuances of their own views, or deliberately conceal those nuances in order to attract more supporters. This too is permissible, but also subject to criticism, in my view; certainly a person who speaks in this blunt manner should not be surprised or offended if he ends up subjected to blunt criticisms and even misunderstandings.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 15, 2010 1:30:36 PM

For another, if she believes voters have a right to know about her faith, and that she has a right to tell them, then voters must be equally free to question her faith.

I am uncertain this is so. If a public official reveals that he is a Christian and his Christian faith leads him to support health care reform because expanding access to medical care is in his view a good objective that especially helps the poor and weak, why does it follow that he should be called a phony and insincere Christian? If the charge is unfair, why must he take it? Why shouldn’t we have a culture that discourages unfair charges (even if the liberty to level them is unencumbered)? Attacking the sincerity of someone’s religious faith could be seen as politically incorrect for any number of reasons: 1. If you want to attack the efficacy of the program under discussion, stick to the merits and demerits of the program itself. 2. A positive ascription (“My faith guides me to seek the good.”) is different than a negative imputation (“You are an inauthentic hypocrite because your faith has misguided you in this instance.”). 3. Expanding access to health care to the poor and weak is a good objective, the criticism of a particular implementation mechanism is a criticism of the means used to attain the objective. Criticism that leaps from the shoddiness of the means to obtain a good objective to the quality of the objective itself is fallacious. A good objective that is poorly implemented is still a good objective.

Posted by: Praetor | Jun 15, 2010 5:58:06 PM

I know that Arizona has become the posterchild for crazy politicians of late, but Sharon Angle is from Nevada, not AZ.

Posted by: anon | Jun 15, 2010 7:14:20 PM

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