In recent debates between tea party-endorsed Senate candidates and their Democratic opponents, faith has emerged as a campaign issue.
Calling himself “a pro-life Christian” in opening remarks, Kentucky candidate Rand Paul said, “I’m disheartened that my opponent has chosen to attack my religious beliefs,” referring to Jack Conway’s campaign ad that questioned Paul’s beliefs on the bible, faith-based initiatives and ‘Aqua Buddha.’ (For more on ‘Aqua Buddha’ click here.)
In the Delaware debate between Senate candidates, Christine O’Donnell said, “I would argue there are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs,” alluding to a column written by Chris Coons two decades ago which he characterizes as ‘a joke.’
With polls showing that voters rank the economy as a top issue, why are the faith lives of candidates up for debate?
While the state of the economy remains in a shambles and has largely been ignored in the run-up to November’s elections, it seems that the state of a candidate’s faith has never been more vital to the voting public or his opponents. Whether it be attacks on Muslim candidates for their belief in Islam, or ads insinuating that Kentucky contender Rand Paul is not as truly Christian as he portrays himself to be, or Delaware’s O’Donnell’s insistence that she is not a witch, a candidate’s faith has never been more central to election campaigns than this year. Not only are we focusing on the faith of individual candidates, but the national election has become in some locales a referendum on the place of Muslim citizens in American politics and society, the extent to which faith should define our view of homosexuality and the rights of GLBT Americans to marry or to serve in the armed forces, and on the role God should play in the formation of policy.
It seems that the bastions of our secular democracy are under siege by forces that would like to see America become a Christian nation, making policy on what certain, usually conservative, Christian groups believe to be God’s Law and His will.
In short, America is facing the same challenge the Muslim world has been dealing with for the past 50 years. Shall we remain secular or become a theocracy? When Sarah Palin declares that a pipeline across Alaska is God’s will, how is that different than Ahmedinejad proclaiming that it is God’s will that Iran have nuclear power? When Christian conservatives want to deny gays the right to marry, or protections against work place discrimination because God doesn’t like gays, how is that different than Egypt doing the same on the basis that it is against Islam?
To say the least, assuming we can know God’s will for ourselves or our country is a dangerous business when it goes beyond grand values. It is easy to accept that God wants us to stand for justice, God wants us to promote peace. It is a lot harder to believe that He has voted for a particular policy or budget item. Furthermore, when people claim that God is commanding certain laws or policies, that he is for certain programs and against others, we limit the ability of people to disagree; after all disagreement with God is tantamount to promoting Satan or being evil. The argument shifts from a discussion of what is most effective, what is most just, and what is most desired by the majority of people, into an argument over theology and scriptural interpretation.
I can only hope the forces of secularism win out, both in America and in the Muslim world. Only through secular government can freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, two cardinal values in both the Bill of Rights and the Qur’an, be maintained. And only through secularism can civil society ensure the equality of all.