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 …