Partitioning faith

Nearly two years ago I wrote about the concern some liberals had about the faith of then-Supreme Court Justice nominee John Roberts.  They worried that his faith might inappropriately influence his work as a member of the Supreme Court (Our Discomfort with Faith).  In response to this concern, many of John Roberts’ defenders publicly stated that his faith would not interfere with the way he practiced his day job at the Court.  They essentially said that his faith is a private, personal matter, and that his approach to law is a separate, professional matter. 

In my post two years ago I argued that faith should not be a separate thing, but rather should inform one’s daily work (the ways that faith is active in daily work can be myriad – think Two Kingdoms, folks).  To argue that faith is separate from daily work is to make a claim for a partitioned faith that is accessed only on Sundays and other holy moments.  And that’s a bunch of phooey.  But it is the argument many conservatives made in defense of John Roberts, and the argument many are now making for Surgeon General Nominee James Holsinger.

Dr. Holsinger is a conservative Christian who has described homosexuality as unhealthy, and who helped found a congregation that teaches that homosexuality can be cured.  Gay rights groups are opposed to his nomination, concerned that he will not support the gay community and its health concerns as Surgeon General.  Yet, in his defense friends and colleagues are making the faith-is-not-a-part-of-his-work argument:

His supporters, including fellow doctors, faculty members and state
officials, said he would never let his theological views affect his
medical ones.

"Jim is able, as most of us are in medicine, to separate feelings that
we have from our responsibility in taking care of patients," said
Douglas Scutchfield, a professor of public health at the University of

(from Gays oppose Surgeon General pick, Jeffry McMurray, AP, appearing in Philadelphia Inquirer)

I do not share his beliefs, and I certainly believe there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to express ones faith in the workplace.  But I also believe that one can live by faith without ever uttering a holy or religious word.  Those who argue that Dr. Holsinger, Justice Roberts, or any other public official can (or will need to) separate their professional work from their personal faith hold a simplistic understanding of faith.  They fail to see that faith can be active in "secular" tasks, and that faith can lead a believer to honorably and appropriately fulfill a public office – even one that, at times, conflicts with traditional Christian teachings (think of Whether soldiers, too, can be saved – here in Google Books!).  Would these faith-partitioners tell me that when Justice Roberts makes a legal decision his faith is dormant, resting up for Sunday Mass?  Or that Dr. Holsinger, when developing public health policy, sets aside his belief in a God of healing and mercy? 

Faith is active in all aspects of life and work – faith is not something a believer can simply set aside.  Exactly how faith is active in the life and work of Dr. Holsinger and Justice Roberts – well, that’s a question I cannot answer.  But rather than attack their religious beliefs, I’d take a look at the quality and nature of their past work.  How effective was Dr. Holsinger as the top health official for the state of Kentucky – that’s the relevant question.  After all, we’re not hiring these people to be theologians.  We’re hiring them to be public servants.  Let’s evaluate them on that basis, please.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

One thought on “Partitioning faith

  1. Trying to make faith a part of my daily life is something I’ve worked on as an adult. It wasn’t something stressed in any way in my church upbringing. I like that idea, I think from Luther, about making daily decisions to follow Jesus.
    In some traditions, people wear their faith (or perhaps, their “theology”) on their sleeves and express it as part of everything that happens to them. How could a person who is like that possible separate out faith and life?
    But I do think that a doctor or lawyer CAN separate his theology from how he deals with a particular patient or client. But this is much different from separating personal beliefs from making policy and general decisions. How could a person of deep faith make a policy decision that is quite contrary to personal beliefs and have a clear conscience?
    In the case of Dr. Holsinger, the questionable issue is an opinion he wrote about 25 years ago about homosexuals. Has it come out what he thinks presently? Public figures are tripped up on things from the past. The media wants to not allow change in thinking. But it would be better to judge on the whole picture of his work.

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