Imagine if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington, D.C., to advocate against abortion. Imagine these clerics filmed a television ad in which they made a faith-based appeal for the cause, citing scripture while dressed in full religious regalia. And suppose this campaign were funded by a political action committee backed by one of America’s wealthiest politicians. Can you imagine the outcry from the commentariat? How quickly such an initiative would be denounced by liberal columnists and politicians as a religious encroachment on our country’s politics—a dangerous theocratic imposition on our secular democracy?
This past weekend, such a faith-fueled campaign kicked off in the nation’s capital, except it wasn’t pushing restrictions on abortions—it was pushing restrictions on guns. Backed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the political action committee co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, dozens of esteemed faith leaders converged on Washington on Friday to kick off National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. The event coincided with the release of a pro-gun control TV ad featuring many of these clerics, including Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, and Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.
Not a single column was written protesting these religious leaders preaching in service of a partisan political cause. But such selective censure should not be surprising: The charge that faith leaders are inappropriately meddling in our politics is one that only seems to be leveled at religious conservatives and not at their liberal counterparts. For the overwhelming majority of critics, it’s not really the fact of religion’s involvement in politics that’s troubling—it’s the “wrong” religious views being involved in politics. Take a closer look and one finds that their cries of “theocracy!” tend to be motivated more by partisanship than principle.
Consider the following statement: “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.” It’s a fairly anodyne sentiment. But when Rep. Paul Ryan said these words in response to a moderator’s query during October’s vice presidential debate, the reaction was anything but mild.
“That’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer, what those scary Iranian ‘Ayatollahs’ [Ryan] kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well,” exclaimed The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. “Ryan was rejecting secularism itself, casually insisting, as the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan put it, that ‘the usual necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church, cannot and should not exist.’ ”
But now consider this statement, uttered by another American politician: “If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel—the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it.”
Those are the words of President Barack Obama at the February 2011 National Prayer Breakfast. He went on to say: “I’d be remiss if I stopped there; if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends. So instead, I must try—imperfectly, but I must try—to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation.”
Neither Gopnik nor Sullivan flagged that Obama speech as objectionable.
Of course, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was not the only member of the GOP ticket to come under fire for his faith. As many will recall, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was repeatedly assailed for his Mormonism and accused of having theocratic designs on the American government. Attacking Romney’s candidacy, writers from the New York Times to Salon claimed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints sought to instantiate a “theodemocracy” with the former Massachusetts governor as their standard-bearer.
Yet the authors of these dire warnings against creeping Mormonism were nowhere to be found earlier this month, when one of the LDS Church’s apostles unreservedly endorsed President Obama’s liberal immigration reforms, declaring them “totally in line with our values.” Had the church instead embraced Romney’s more restrictive proposals, would these same writers be silent? For that matter, where were the policemen of palatable political parlance when organizations representing tens of millions of evangelical Christians launched a Bible-based push for immigration reform in January?
The double standard is hard to miss. In each of these cases, it is not religion’s entanglement in politics that is the real target of criticism, but religious conservatism. Religious liberalism, on the other hand, gets a free pass. Certainly, religious conservatives have organized more effectively than their liberal compatriots, meriting greater scrutiny for their side. But that doesn’t explain or excuse the uneven character of that coverage. Thus, when Paul Ryan and Barack Obama make nearly identical statements on the role faith plays in their politics, only the former is pilloried for it. Likewise, the LDS Church’s staunch social conservativism draws accusations that it “does not respect separation of church and state,” but its pronounced liberalism on immigration goes without such objections.
In truth, however, there is little functional difference between the activities of a conservative evangelical pastor affiliated with the Christian Right and a liberal rabbi at the Religious Action Center. Both individuals seek to bring their deeply held values to bear on the political process. Substantively, the contents of their views are vastly different. But the way their faith informs and affects their advocacy is the same.
Now, there is no question that lurking on the fringes of the religious right are those whose true aim is not to participate in American democracy but to fundamentally reshape it. But these extremists no more represent mainstream religious conservatives than the socialist fringe of American liberalism (or Jeremiah Wright) represents Barack Obama and his allies, or jihadis represent mainstream Muslims. Simply put, the vast majority of both religious liberals and conservatives operate happily and responsibly within the framework of American democracy and have no desire to capsize it.
There’s a more honest way to talk about religion’s role in our politics. It starts with being consistent and exorcising this selective specter of theocracy. Those who are uncomfortable with religion in the public square should cry foul at any cleric’s attempt to use faith to influence the political debate, whether in a liberal or conservative direction. Those who, like President Obama and Rep. Ryan, believe religion has always been an essential part of our national conversation, should permit faith leaders of all political persuasions to say their piece. These sentiments should by no means be exempt from criticism—but one should critique the content of the view, not delegitimize its source. Either of these positions is intellectually honest and defensible. Picking and choosing which faith leaders are theocrats based on how much they affirm one’s partisan politics is not.
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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.