Faith, Politics, and a Disappointing VP Response

The vice presidential debate took place earlier this month, briefly giving the election spotlight to Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence. As the night unfolded, it was difficult to find much substance in the weeds of catchphrases, well trodden, if true, attacks, and painfully prewritten zingers. Thenthe moderator asked this question: “You have both been open about the role that faith has played in your lives. Can you discuss in detail a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and a public policy position?” 

We are accustomed to politicians invoking religious language and commitments. Although one might immediately associate a Christian voice with the Republican party, Democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter have also shared about their faith while campaigning and in office, weaving it into their public persona.

However, the role of religion in the lives of this year’s presidential candidates has not been widely discussed. Neither presidential candidate has spoken about their faith publicly in the manner that we have become accustomed to. From all evidence, Trump understands religion, and specifically evangelical Christianity, as nothing more than a key voting demographic. And while Clinton has deep roots in and has spoken before about the impact of her Methodist faith on her life, she is generally private about her faith.

It is interesting then that both candidates picked running mates who are well known for their public faith commitments. Tim Kaine attended a Jesuit high school and then served under Jesuits in Honduras, becoming heavily influenced by liberation theology, which drove him to public service. And Mike Pence’s political persona cannot be separated from his religious identity, indicated in his tagline, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” Both are explicit about the animating force that faith is in their political careers.

At the vice presidential debate table, Kaine and Pence offered a visual representation of the two most recognizable strains of how Christian faith has manifested itself politically over the last 40 years. Kaine, a liberal Democrat with deep ties to social justice movements, and Pence, a Republican defined by his socially and economically conservative policy.

Viewing their responses through this lens, the candidates gave somewhat predictable answers. Kaine talked about struggling with approving executions as governor of Virginia and Pence talked about abortion (although he failed to talk about any sort of struggle he has had over the public policy surrounding it).

However, what was most telling about the two answers was what they had in common. Both Pence and Kaine presented their faith as primarily a personal and individual matter.

In his answer, Pence said that his faith became “real” when he “made a personal decision for Christ.” This language is a reflection of the tendency of popular conservative evangelical theology to focus on the question of salvation as it relates to the question of heaven and hell. However, this usually results in a shallow understanding of what implications the Gospel might have on our lives this side of Jesus’ return, especially as it relates to our responsibility to our communities.

When we talk about religion as primarily an individual matter to be checked at the door of politics, we misunderstand the role that religion plays in politics.

Pence went on to say, “my faith informs my life,” but his example of how his faith informs his life was, “I try and spend a little time on my knees every day.” This statement was likely an afterthought and if asked directly about it, he would surely have a more robust answer, but it is exactly because it is an afterthought that it is telling. Spending time on your knees praying is certainly not a bad thing, but that that is his primary example of how he lives his faith out every day as a politician reflects how he thinks about the relationship between his faith and his public service. It is an individual theology before it is anything else.

On the other side, Tim Kaine talked about having to oversee executions as governor even though he thinks the death penalty is wrong. He said, “I try to practice my religion in a very devout way and follow the teachings of my church in my own personal life. But I don't believe in this nation, a First Amendment nation, where we don't raise any religion over the other, and we allow people to worship as they please, that the doctrines of any one religion should be mandated for everyone.” Here, Kaine draws a distinct line between his personal religious practice and his role as a public servant. He would have us believe that he attempts to set his Christian faith at the door when he enters into the political arena.

An assumption of this view is that politics can be a fully neutral space. This neutral space is different from a First Amendment freedom of religion in that it goes a step further in requiring people to abandon their religious convictions when stepping into the political sphere.

However, to think that politics can be a neutral, religion-less space is to fundamentally misunderstand what religion is and what its function is in our lives. If we think of religion as merely a set of doctrinal beliefs about God and morality then maybe, yes, one can imagine a neutral political sphere. But in this instance, what the word neutral really means is secular. This is where we run into trouble because secular and neutral do not mean the same thing.

Author and professor David Dark describes religion as the “shape our loves take,“ which is a broader definition of religion than we usually imagine when talking about the public square. What this broader conception of religion gets at is that the heart of religion is not necessarily what one believes about a higher power, but what one chooses to worship. Towards what or who do we choose to order our lives? To what or whom do we give honor and revere?

Both “religious” and “secular” people order their lives towards certain ends, whether they think about it or not. In the words of David Foster Wallace, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

The LA Times described the difference between Kaine and Pence’s answer in this way: “What separates them is whether their personal views should dictate public policy.” But framed in this way, you could ask this about any public policy position. For example, my hunch is that it is both Pence and Kaine’s “personal view” is that it should be illegal for individuals to intentionally set buildings on fire. But no one ever frames the question of the legality of arson in this way because most implicitly agree that destruction of property, especially property owned by others, is illegal. The question of abortion however, among many others, is one on which the citizens of the United States happen to be deeply divided on what exactly is just.

This is the question for public policy: how do we determine what constitutes public justice in our society? This question is not an irreligious question. How each of us answers that question will be shaped by what we worship and what we love, whether the recipient of that worship is a Triune God, or the idea of individual autonomy. And in this way, we all bring our “religious” views into the political sphere to determine what constitutes just public policy. When we talk about religion as primarily an individual matter to be checked at the door of politics, we misunderstand the role that religion plays in politics whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Of course the protection of the First Amendment is vital and of course in a pluralistic society the doctrinal beliefs of one group should not be forced on others. But the vision of the First Amendment is not the vision of a political space disconnected from the deepest convictions of its citizens. The goal of governing a pluralistic society is not to remove religion from the public square, but rather to navigate between the competing religious claims of all citizens. For it is in this navigation that we work towards a vision of public justice that allows us to live at peace with one another and promotes the flourishing of all citizens.

This is why it was disappointing to hear both vice presidential candidates present a one-dimensional vision, a theology, of faith and politics that focused on the personal and individual. While it is a difficult task to present a more complex vision in a short answer, at the very least they could have pointed us in the right direction. Instead, both Pence and Kaine missed the chance to present a robust vision of religion and politics that our increasingly divided political sphere desperately needs.

-Andrew Whitworth is a recent graduate of Taylor University and alumni of the Trinity Fellows Academy. He lives in DC working to build flourishing political communities.