The Case For Religious Discrimination

Where candidates for office are concerned, that is. Jon Chait, responding to my critique of this column, complains that I don't offer much of a response to his original argument, which he summarizes thus:

It's unhealthy to have a politics in which candidates run on the basis of their religion because sectarian differences are irresolvable, and religious-based politics places nonbelievers and members of minority religions (like Romney) at an unfair disadvantage.

I think the original piece made much broader claims than this about the acceptability of mixing religion and politics, but judge for yourself. To the narrower point, I'm not entirely sure what I think. On the one hand, Mike Huckabee's attempt to brand himself as a "Christian leader" instinctively rubs me the wrong way. On the other hand, I have no difficulty with the notion of voters deciding not to vote for a candidate because they're put off by his religion, given how closely faith is usually bound up (and ought to be bound up, if the faith is sincere) with a politician's political worldview. As I said in my previous post, an American might reasonably decline to vote for a candidate because he belongs to a religion that institutionalizes practices alien to republican democracy (like polygamy or racial discrimination), or that opposes the separation of church and state, or that attempts to exert an untoward level of direct control over the everyday lives of its members.

These are somewhat extreme examples, though, so let me go further: All other things being equal, I would probably vote for a candidate who shares my religious beliefs if he were up against a candidate who doesn't, whether Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or agnostic. Now of course all other things aren't equal, and there are plenty of situations where I'd rather be governed by a wise Muslim than a foolish Christian. But religion affects values, values affect politics, and it isn't a coincidence that an awful lot of the people I disagree with politically I also disagree with theologically. And I don't mean this just as it applies to the liberal-conservative divide, since it's true within conservatism as well: I'm more likely to agree with the men (and women) of the Right who come to politics from a Christian perspective than those whose bedrock convictions don't partake of Christian belief, and many of the tendencies I dislike in contemporary conservatism (including, among other things, a disturbing consequentialism where issues of war-making and wartime conduct are concerned) are associated with the less-religious precincts of the Right.

You could counter that I should ignore the religious (or irreligious) underpinnings of political opinions with which I disagree, and just focus on the policy itself, but this seems both impossible to manage and intellectually unserious. After all, if you want to know why some conservatives are more comfortable with torture than others (to take an example with a fair amount of contemporary relevance), it helps to know what the Catholic Church has to say on the issue. If you want to know why George W. Bush defines himself as a "compassionate conservative" and his father didn't, it helps to know something about how evangelical theology has interacted with American politics. And so forth.

Moreover, when you're electing a President, you simply can't know every policy dilemma he'll face and every debate he'll be confronted with, so looking at policy positions alone inevitably leaves a large swathe of the map uncharted - and knowing about a candidate's religious beliefs can help to fill in those blanks. Thus I would be more likely to support, say, Rudy Giuliani if he were a sincere and devout Catholic rather than a seemingly-lapsed one even if all his professed political opinions were exactly the same as they are today, because knowing that he took the claims of Christianity seriously would give me more confidence that he'd make a decision I'd approve of in a situation whose contours I can't hope to foresee.

The question, to return to Chait's point, is whether my willingness to discriminate in favor of a candidate based on our shared religious beliefs can be reconciled with my discomfort with Mike Huckabee telling me to vote for him because he's a Christian. I'm not sure: Intuitively, I would say that it's appropriate for voters to consider religion (and for pundits and bloggers to discuss it, obviously) but not for candidates themselves to make explicitly sectarian appeals, but I wonder if that's a distinction that makes any logical sense.