“We all have our religions, but …”

Once again, the religious faith of a presidential nominee is being brought into question.  

Today's Washington Post profiles Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the president's pick to be Surgeon General, and gives particular attention to her religious faith (Surgeon General Pick's Stance on Abortion May Clash With Church's, by Cheryl W. Thompson, Sat July 28, 2009, A5).  Dr. Benjamin, after all, is a practicing Roman Catholic.  Yet, according to friends, she aparently supports abortion rights (she has not made any public statement on her abortion views). The article attempts to play up the potential conflicts between her religious faith and her public service, and also between her stance on abortion and her membership in the Roman Catholic church.

Cited in the article are the now-common yet simplistic refrains that the nominee can separate religious faith from public service. Supporters – and nominees, too – often make this claim when their religion teaches something that might come into conflict with their public role. In this case it is an odd claim to have to make, since Dr. Benjamin seems to support the law on access to abortion, and since the position for which she is nominated has little influence on the abortion issue.  Nonetheless, the faith-is-separate-from-public-service argument has been trotted out:

"We all have our religions, but when you speak as the surgeon general to the American people, it's not about your religion," said David Satcher, a fromer surgeon general under President Bill Clinton ….

"You kind of have to park your personal beliefs at the door when they conflict with what your role is," said [Jorge] Alsip [a long-time colleague of Dr. Benjamin's], who said he opposes abortion rights.

What both Drs. Satcher and Alsip fail to grasp here is that religious faith can send someone into public service, and that faith indeed can lead someone – out of a call to serve others – to at times work within settings and tasks that otherwise might be in the "thou shalt not" category of faith.  

The concept of faith that Drs. Satcher and Alsip seem to have is one that can only operate in isolation or in the ideal, and has little ability to maneuver the challenges and realities of the "real world." Indeed, I have serious concerns about a faith that is comparmentalized and easily set aside when faced with challenging circumstances. A robust faith – and with it, a robust theology of vocation, human anthropology, and of God's two kingdoms – is one which can navigate the challenges, pitfalls, and moral inconsistencies of daily life.  A theology of Christian perfection gets the real-world Christian nowhere, and forces her to ditch her faith in the face of human imperfection.

I've written about this topic before, concerning two Bush administration nominees – about four years ago at the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts (Our Discomfort With Faith), and two years ago at the nomination of James Holsinger to be Surgeon General (Partitioning Faith). In each case it is claimed that the nominee can keep their faith separate from their public service. I say hogwash. Rather, I would expect that it is religious faith which first propeled them to enter public service, and which sustains their daily work.

More on this later, perhaps …

Published by Chris Duckworth

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

3 thoughts on ““We all have our religions, but …”

  1. I was watching TNT’S Raising the Bar the other day, and the lawyers were having a conversation about a jury who had just completely set aside the law and acquitted a man who was guilty (because the crime had been an accident). It was an interesting conversation because they were saying that juries have the right to completely set aside the law if they like, but they (the lawyers) can’t ever tell them that. We can’t *say* that because it opens the door for too many bad situations to arise, but technically, it is their right.
    I think I’m seeing that sort of thinking around a lot – here, even. It’s nearly impossible to have as deep and thoughtful a discussion as would be necessary to explain why and how faith can inform and enlighten everyday decisions. Even if we did, it would set a precedent that we may not want to follow in the public sphere (your stance on the separation of church and state falls in right here!).
    It’s a complicated issue, and one that absolutely should be up for discussion – but here, not there.

  2. The good folks of Westboro Baptist Church will be picketing here in Ames this Friday afternoon. I believe it’s folks like this who contribute to the darker side of the interaction between faith and public calling, as do the extreme fringes of secular society who would have us completely sever the link between faith and public life. Absolutism in all its forms can be deadly, IMHO.

  3. Chris — as always, good analysis. I would say that part of the problem is our view of HOW our faith affects our ministry and vocation is often simplistic. In our baptismal liturgy, we talking about bearing “God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world,” but often in reality, people only “get” the redeeming part of it. So it’s all about: well, if you can’t use your position to proselytize, what else is there? How different to hear Luther talk about the tools of one’s trade being the tools that we use AS CHRISTIANS for the sake of our neighbors in the world. To hear many fundamentalists talk, you would think that the only thing that makes any difference at all is whether we get our neighbor into heaven.
    Ok, enough of that for now….also congrats on being one of a handful of blogs listed in the “Seeds for the Parish” this month. Keep up the good work!

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