When There Is Too Much Religion In Politics

Next week, my defense of religion in politics — Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States — will be published by Simon & Schuster. This book is both a history and apologia of religious conservatives in politics over the past 30 years. But this primary season has led me to the conclusion that my book needs one more chapter: “When There Is Too Much Religion in Politics.”

Between the attention paid to religion by the media and the constant playing to religious voters by the candidates, even a sympathetic observer might be thinking enough is enough.
Consider the case of former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee. He made the following statement at the debate before the Michigan primary on January 14:
I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the Word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do, to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view (emphasis added).
Huckabee was arguing in favor of two proposed constitutional amendments that I support: the Human Life Amendment (which would protect unborn life) and the Federal Marriage Amendment (which would keep marriage between a man and a woman).
However, to evoke “God’s standards” in a political setting can be dangerous for two reasons. First, it’s bad politics in terms of gaining broad support. What about those voters who don’t believe in God, much less His “standards”? Those voters will wonder, rightly, if Huckabee has anything to say to them.
But beyond merely winning votes, a man of faith in politics should treat our political realm for what it is — the pursuit of the common good through representative government. Politics is not crypto-religion, and it’s not about calling voters to salvation. Personal beliefs, therefore, should be translated into a secular rationale capable of convincing everyone, regardless of faith (or lack of it).
Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with a declaration of personal faith and beliefs in politics; religious conservatives have fought hard to make this an acceptable part of our public life. What I mean by “too much religion in politics” is what occurs when people of faith treat their religious convictions as the end, rather than the beginning, of the argument.
St. Anselm once described faith as something always “in search of understanding.” To hear Huckabee on this particular night in Michigan, you would think he considered “God’s standards” as self-evident as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Gildoff has ranked the candidates on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest “theocrat” rating. Huckabee’s clocking in at a nine is no surprise, but what is surprising is that Hillary Clinton ties with him. Obama, Romney, and Richardson came in a close second at an eight. Given that the Baptist minister Huckabee was lacing his stump speeches with biblical references, it’s not insignificant that Clinton would tie him, with Obama right behind. GOP nominee John McCain comes in close to the bottom with a four, which clearly explains some of his problems with Dr. James Dobson and other leaders of the Christian Right.
After the 2004 election, the Democratic Party leadership worried that it was perceived as suffering from a “God gap” and not being “faith-friendly.” If Gildoff’s ratings are credible — and I believe they are — we will be going into a presidential campaign where the Democratic candidate has been talking about God twice as much as the Republican.
In this respect, the McCain candidacy may be a gift to the GOP. McCain will provide a cooling-off period for “movement” religious conservatives. The Mike Huckabee of the 2008 campaign was simply over the top in his posturing for Evangelical voters. Huckabee in 2012, I predict, will not advocate amending the Constitution according to “God’s standards” and will not rate as highly on Gildoff’s God-o-Meter. (Further, Romney in 2012 won’t be making any grand statements on the subject of America’s “symphony of faith,” as he did at College Station in December; his campaign went downhill from there.)
If religious conservatives are to be successful in politics, they need to spend more time studying natural law and less time worrying about the millennial matters. They know little about the former, and what they know about the latter won’t change anything.
Some religious conservatives will object, saying that believers should speak the truth regardless of the venue — whether a political rally, a schoolroom, or a pulpit. But the pursuit of truth should never be an excuse for showing a lack of respect to others. Understanding what the political order is, and what it is not, shows respect for human dignity, as was discussed in the Vatican’s “Declaration on Human Freedom“:
Truth . . . is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.
Merely declaring a law to be right because it conforms to “God’s standard” may begin political discourse, but it should not end it. In such a case, a politician relies too much on his God talk and too little on “faith seeking understanding.”

Deal W. Hudson is the director of InsideCatholic.com and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster, March 2008).

Eric Pavlat


Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

  • Joseph

    If the Pew Study is accurate why should these faith driven voters not make decisions based on their moral belief system?
    2008 with its sharp contrast between pro-life and pro-death candidates may shock all conventional thinking. Many faith voters will understand the consequences of a Democratic Party’s control over the Executive Branch as being extremely harmful to life.

  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    … and both come from God. Whether we are trying to overturn Roe. v. Wade or pass a constitutional amendment to protect marriage, we should start by pointing at why those measures would benefit the nation as a whole (believers and unbelievers). We should not simply muscle our way through with simplistic arguments or by using the sheer power of a majority (both are double-edges swords).

    Christians have a natural advantage at understanding political and social issues because we are “standing on giants’ shoulders”. Yet God Himself requires of us not only obedience but also understanding. Like the first Psalm says about the man of God:

    “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on His Law he meditates day and night.”

    We have to be able to present our ideas in a comprehensive, compelling way and to do so we must understand why God’s ways are good for us and for everyone.

    Saying “God says so” it’s easy yet those words have been abused so much by bad men!
    If we do things right, people will eventually associate good politics with godly politics and there will be little need to invoke God to buttress any political argument.

    Deal: I think your article points nicely at how religion can be good for politics, and why politics is the natural realm for the religious person who wants to work for the common good.

  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    I meant to write “double-edged”.

  • Deal Hudson

    Joseph, I didn’t say that they shouldn’t vote on the basis of their beliefs — I said that political candidates should “translate” their religious beliefs into arguments that everyone, regardless of faith or lack of it, can understand.

  • Steve Skojec

    Deal Hudson wrote: To hear Huckabee on this particular night in Michigan, you would think he considered “God’s standards” as self-evident as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…

    …If religious conservatives are to be successful in politics, they need to spend more time studying natural law and less time worrying about the millennial matters.

    I find these two observations to be a bit contradictory. Aren’t God’s self-evident standards precisely the natural law that you argue conservatives should spend more time studying?

    That quibble aside, I think I agree with you for the most part. Americans of all religious persuasions have to find a way to work effectively within the confines of pluralism. That makes the sort of statements Huckabee has made a bit problematic.

    As Catholics, we don’t have an ideological conflict with a confessional state, but America isn’t one. With that in mind, we need good tactics for how Catholics (and others) in public life can apply the morality and ethics of their religion to their secular policies.

  • Theresa

    I know that your article is focusing on the Candidates but I as a voter want to know if a candidate truly believes in God. I want to know that they view God as the Source of our existence, worthy of acknowledgment, and key to our Nation

  • Teri Bohlinger

    Dear Deal,

    You have some great opening lines in this article.
    When you said the voters are inclined to say “enough is enough,” I wanted to say, “Amen.”

    I’m inclined to think that with all the media and political noise that there is a myopic agenda view from the media and political machines. There is too much faith in polital solutions. Note the lower case “f.”

    People are worshiping creatures by design. If they follow secularism as a Faith, they will find something else to worship, not the creator of us all. Too often I distrust the media tendency to worship at the altar focused at the White House, Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court. People put in a prayer, or agenda, to their favorite problem solver and expect an answer in their favor.

    If there is too much religion in politics perhaps it may be part of the elite media secular agenda to spin it that way, which I think is an especially narrow and telling approach. Entertaining the opposite thought, it also may be part of the backlash from those faithful to God back at many of the malcontents of the Left who’s most tested trait is unpredictability favoring an attack against those who worship God.
    It’s difficult to tell which one is the proverbial “dog” and which is the “wagging tail.” One thing is certain; I don’t trust the master of the media.

    I happen to believe that ideologies of hate, isolationism, ego- and ethno-centricity, persecution of the dignity of would-be benefactors, and murder of the most innocent are bad change agents if you are looking for a savior.

  • John Jakubczyk

    Steve makes an interesting point. Reflections on the need to respect the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may be God’s standards in one sense, but the common underlying point is that all of ti should come through from the Natural Law, which believers accept as coming ultimately from God. However the beauty of the natural Law (and why it has been under attack in the law for 100 years) is that it presents the truths or standards God so desires in human discourse without the doctrinal or denominational baggage that often comes into play when religion steps into the debate. Part of the problem in the modern politics is that we do not operate from a common set of principles any more. Thus people talk past each other as we are already seeing in the brush up to the general election. Lost is the notion that there is an absolute truth that is not somehow “limited” by religion. Yet just below the surface (and this shows itself in time of crisis) the people know there is a truth and that it begins and ends with God.