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Monday, September 10, 2012

What Does it Mean for Religion to be "Out of Bounds?"

I appreciate Jay's post below asking why "religious questions" are "out of bounds" in elections. (And here is a link to his new book.) I have written about this issue once or twice before. I happen to agree that religious questions should not be out of bounds in politics, although I don't think that proposition alone says all that much. Despite that, I'm ultimately not sure I agree with the apparent premises of Jay's post, however.

To begin with, what does it mean for religion to be out of bounds in politics? Jay writes that "judgment calls when it comes to religion are somehow insulated from judgment calls in every other area of life," and that it's generally considered forbidden to criticize tenets of a faith because, among other things, "questioning someone's religious beliefs is supposed to be off-limits in American political discourse." The first thing I'd say in response is that, in fact, these kinds of questions seem to me to get asked all the time. Often they get asked as second-order questions, ie. articles asking how Romney's Mormonism would affect his chances in the GOP primaries. Sometimes they get asked as first-order questions: the Times runs profiles of all the major candidates, including Romney but also Santorum and Bachmann, and it certainly wrote about their religious beliefs (and, four years ago, Obama's relationship to faith and to Jeremiah Wright). And did the mainstream media really not "make much" of George W. Bush's Christian beliefs? Not from where I sit! Depending on the circles you travel in, moreover, plenty of these conversations took place elsewhere in the public dialogue than in the mainstream media. I see few FB posts on Romney's religion (aside from the occasional rude joke about sacred undergarments) but saw plenty about Bachmann and Santorum's views on faith. There is some kind of public norm that discourages asking too many such questions, or asking them too directly, but it is a distinctly permeable line. Certainly politicians themselves invoke the "out of bounds" rhetoric when it suits them, as Romney has from time to time (see my second article above), but I'm not sure that makes it a rule so much as a political strategy (and sometimes a detente between candidates), and in any event it is not scrupulously observed. 

Second, while I don't favor an "out of bounds" rule at all, I think it's worth considering the downsides of making this a widely discussed topic. Jay writes that "[r]eligious beliefs are as germane to being president as ideological ones." I agree with that in broad scope. But in application, things get very complicated very quickly. Ideological beliefs are germane to presidential elections, but they're not always great indicators, and anyone who thinks a candidate's ideology tells you everything you need to know about how he would govern will miss a good deal of the complexity and nuances that go into actual human life, including political life. That's all the more true with religion, at least at present in American political life. It is certainly relevant and can sometimes be highly relevant. But most large American religions are low-tension religions in practice--that is, they don't present strong conflicts between one's religious beliefs and obligations and one's actions in most aspects of civic life. Even when they might, people and churches have a way of reducing cognitive dissonance, either through individuals ignoring or reinterpreting faith tenets or churches changing their doctrines.

To me, some of these potential problems are evident in Jay's treatment of Romney and his LDS beliefs. He writes that Romney's status as a bishop shows that he has "really bought into these beliefs." But does it? And which beliefs? Perhaps what moves him most about this office is the spirit of "mutual assistance" that can end up with Senator Orrin Hatch "waist deep in a septic tank" helping a neighbor with manual work. He also writes that it is "dishonest" for Romney to "glide over" differences betwen Mormon and mainstream Christian faith perspectives, such as whether whether "Romney expects to be physically reincarnated on his own planet." But the more specific one gets with these doctrinal questions, often enough--as in this case--the less relevant it is to the candidate's actual performance in office. 

Again, I don't think these questions should be utterly out of bounds by any means. But I also don't think they really are out of bounds in practice. We hear them all the time, albeit they are usually badly asked and rarely asked. And saying they aren't out of bounds in principle doesn't free the people asking those questions from doing so with an appreciation for the nuances involved in an individual's relationship to his faith and in the relationship between his faith and his actions. And if we focus simply on those articles of faith, those truth-claims, that we find to be "completely untenable," then we really risk oversimplifying. A far tighter link between beliefs and policy is needed, and even then we may be misled. Jay's example of a candidate who believes we will be taken up by UFOs by 2013 is certainly relevant to how that candidate would carry out long-term policy; so would the views of a Jewish candidate who believes strongly, say, that justice is important because a divinely guided prophet told us so. But most faiths involve truth-claims that most other people find untenable, and as a practical matter few of those claims are going to be directly relevant to questions of policy, or will have other justifications, or will be only complexly related to how the candidate would carry out policy plans.

I think we are usually going to get more guidance and mileage out of asking questions about policy more directly, while treating questions about religious beliefs as potentially relevant but not as directly relevant as we might think. It would seem natural enough that if Romney raises the issue of weak public acknowledgment of God, ie. on coins, we could ask him, "Which God, exactly?" But we already know the answer to that question--"none, exactly, except insofar as it appeals to relevant voters." Would asking him the details of the LDS faith really add much to the conversation?    

In short, I think religious questions can be in bounds, and are certainly generally treated that way, but the fact that we rarely target religious questions highly specifically and vocally has some merits of its own, if only the merit of humility on questions of religious truth and their complex relation to both individual belief and individual action. The rhetorical device used by politicians of calling such questions "out of bounds" is a mistake, in my view, and one that politicians are often hypocritical about. But if we agreed that such questions are potentially in bounds but declared more or less forcefully that they ought to be approached carefully and with humility and not used as broadsides, we would have a fairly apt description of a fairly reasonable "rule" of discourse.     


Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 10, 2012 at 08:46 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I think I see the key to your post, and my qualms with it, in this passage: "It would seem natural enough that if Romney raises the issue of weak public acknowledgment of God, ie. on coins, we could ask him, 'Which God, exactly?' But we already know the answer to that question--'none, exactly, except insofar as it appeals to relevant voters.' Would asking him the details of the LDS faith really add much to the conversation?"

You are writing as a person who votes for candidates based on expected policy positions. I'm one of those people too, and I find it infuriating that elections are (sometimes) (so I am told) decided by "independent" voters who vote based on other factors including perceived personality of the candidate, or affinity with the candidate, or "would you like to have a beer with ..." (I can see voting that way, strategically, in a party primary - precisely because I want a primary winner who can win the general. But when it comes to general elections, never.)

But the fact is, people unlike us do exist, and some of them make decisions based in some part on candidates' relationship to religion - as you recognize, when you say that candidates will say enough about religion as will help them appeal to relevant voters. Mightn't asking Romney to speak more deeply about his religion give information to those voters that is highly relevant to them? Wouldn't it lead some "do I feel comfortable with the guy" voters to feel differently about the candidate, than they feel when all they have is platitude? In that sense, wouldn't it add to the conversation? Maybe not for you and me, but for some?

I guess what I'm saying is - it seems like perhaps you are making a leap from "It's highly unlikely that we could engage a candidate in a conversation about religion that was honest and deep enough to give me information that is relevant to my decisionmaking" to "We need to be very wary of trying to engage candidates in specific conversations about their religious belief, because there's not much to be gained there."

I think that some who want to avoid the topic - maybe including you - are admirably motivated by a desire to reduce the influence in politics of "discrimination," "bigotry," "anti-[Catholic] [Jewish] [Muslim]" voter behavior." And that is almost 100 percent great. What keeps it from being great is that the expansion of the inter-faith umbrella, in politics, is always at the expense of those outside the inter-FAITH umbrella. Accepting Mormonism under the umbrella is accomplished by loud and repeated assurances that they are just like other mainstream religions, in that they are different from the weirdos and the godless heathens.

Religion can't be both central, and barely relevant, to our politics at the same time.

Posted by: Sam | Sep 10, 2012 4:35:13 PM

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