Should Religion Be Used as a Political Selling Point?

Is it appropriate for a Catholic (or a Jew or Mormon or Lutheran, etc…) to use his religion as a selling point to gain political advantage?

United States Senator Rick Santorum, sponsor o...

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Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) is promoting his Catholicism as a selling point in his bid for the Republican nomination for President. (In the interest of disclosure, I worked in GOTV in Santorum’s 2006 senate re-election campaign and may have made a small financial contribution.) O. Kay Henderson of Iowa Radio reports Santorum is trying to exploit his faith in the run up to the Ames, Iowa straw poll.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has been offering up his religion as a selling point.

“The Republican Party has never nominated a Roman Catholic,” Santorum said in Ames today. “That might not be a bad idea when you think of Iowa, Pennsylvania, Florida and some of the big swing states in the east.”

Certainly a candidate should forthrightly answer reasonable questions about his faith and how religious beliefs inform his moral and political choices. I would be wary of any candidate who tried to hide what role faith would play in his public policy decision making process. As a Catholic Christian I would be more inclined to vote for a candidate if I knew that we shared a similar worldview and made moral decisions within a common framework, so some mention of religion is within bounds.

There are two problems that arise when a candidate or official becomes too closely identified with the Church: tribalism and false equivalence.

The lesser difficulty is the rather blatant appeal to fellow members of the Catholic tribe or playing up the number of Catholics who may vote for him just for that reason when trying to argue electability to others. It would be naive to believe that tribalism does not come in to play in elections. It would be difficult to argue that Jack Kennedy did not get some votes because he was Catholic just as it would not be credible to believe that those who circulated “Kennedy quarters” opposed him for the same reason. (And yes, any honest analysis would conclude that President Obama gained and lost some votes because of race.) There is no particular moral problem with putting that kind of political analysis out there. It is just crass to do it.

The greater problem is what I would label “false equivalence” by which I mean the error of equating a Catholic candidates positions with genuinely Catholic positions. In this specific case CatholicVote.org’s Thomas Peters makes the case that Santorum comes close to matching the two, but that does nothing to decrease the dangers and it does not address Santorum’s position on torture. Regardless of the politician, it does the Church no good to have any candidate be seen as representing any position other than his own. Remember, Nancy Pelosi is factually truthful when she describes herself as a “Catholic grandmother,” but does anyone want her to be taken for someone who represents Catholic morality? It is sometimes dicey enough when an actual member of the magisterium speaks on behalf of the church, so please let us not have politicians be seen as our spokesmen.

The potential for false equivalence is complicated by the fact that the church properly limits itself to commenting on moral matters in public policy and allows the prudential decisions about how policy is carried into effect to the public and our officials. The church has a difficult enough time being heard about our moral obligations with regard to immigrants so we do not benefit if politicians are mistaken as representing the Church on the practical, prudential matters it takes no position on such as what means we use to secure our boarders.

Finally, while my primary arguments have been directed toward how the world perceives the Church, there remains the danger that fellow Christians are led astray because they like a politician and think if it is alright for him to take a position that they can adopt it as well. Obviously that is not the case. It is not just the church that suffers from this kind of thing, the politicians may be tying the millstones around their own necks.

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