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Faith and Politics An Interview with John Fea

Guest Author - Tracey-Kay Caldwell

I recently read a fascinating article by John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College. A professor from a religious college talking about Democrats and faith---That was someone I wanted to ask more questions. Below follows my email interview with him.

Question) My impression of religious expression in creating public policy has been that the religious right has primarily promoted policies that were restrictive; they wanted to place restrictions on our behavior to ensure that our behavior conformed to their beliefs. While the religious left seems to embrace policies that are inclusive, that they want to give everyone a piece of the pie. Is that my own bias influencing my perception or does history bear that out?

Fea) I am not sure I would make the differences so binary. Yes, the Christian Right’s use of religion is restrictive, particularly on abortion. And yes, the religious left is more inclusive about the role religion plays in American life, especially in the way that it promotes religion as a means of social justice to provide an opportunity for everyone—especially the poor—to rise from various forms of oppression.

But it must be remembered that religion—and I am talking for the most part about Christianity here-- is not primarily a tool of public policy, but a way of living that will inevitably make demands on one’s life. In this case, it always has a certain “restrictive” dimension to it since it requires belief and faith in God and his commandments rather than our own way of doing things.

Democrats of faith are asking people to make sacrifices, to think of others as better than themselves, to lay down self-interest and perhaps even some individual rights in order to build up the national community. This could be perceived as quite “restrictive” to some within their party.

This sort of civic humanism or community building has always been present in American history, but so has the belief in individual rights. Over the last three or four decades the Democratic Party has been the party of individual rights. It is still the party of individual rights, but if I understand the rhetoric of the Party’s presidential candidates, there is a deliberate attempt to move a bit more toward the community/sacrifice/civic responsibility side. Religious faith is a natural ally of this kind of agenda. Of course, this kind of sacrifice only goes so far for the Democrats. The party, for example, defends the right of a woman to have an abortion despite the fact that most of the candidates probably believe that abortion may be a moral wrong that needs to be curbed.

The Christian Right believes that certain moral absolutes trump individual rights. On the abortion issue (to stick with this example) they believe that there must be a limit to the celebration of individual rights, in this case a woman’s right to choose. The historic analogy is far from perfect, but conservatives like to compare their view on abortion to the decision of 19th century abolitionists to fight slavery because it was a moral wrong that trumped the rights of southern plantation owners to hold slaves, even if that right was afforded to them under the Constitution.

But the Christian Right is not entirely about “restriction.” Many of them use their faith to baptize economic freedoms and they will fight like crazy when government tries to “restrict” their free market liberties. They do not want these to extend to everyone. They have made sophisticated arguments about how Christianity and capitalism are compatible.

So the question is a bit more complicated that merely the “exclusive” vs. “inclusive” divide.


Question) You said in your article, Should We be Cheering the Democrats God-Talk?, that Democrats are employing religious belief in a way that better reflects the Founding Fathers? practice of fusing Christian belief and civic humanism. How are Democrats more consistent with the Founding Fathers?

Fea) This is really the crux of my essay. First of all, when I read the writings of the Founders, I cannot deny the fact that they were very interested in the role that religion would play in the future of the republic. I do think, however, that they were concerned with the way people of all faiths might contribute to the republic, and not just Christians. It is important to remember that the founders were statesmen trying to build a nation. They were not theologians. When they wrote about religion, they thought about it primarily in regard to how it might serve the republic. And they concluded that religion was absolutely essential--George Washington called it a “great pillar of human happiness”—for its role in teaching people to be good citizens. They believed that a republic was not only a particular form of government, but it was a sort of moral community that would only survive when people would be civic-minded and give something up for the greater good of the national community.

Clinton, Edwards, and especially Obama seem to get this. They are suggesting that religious people are more likely than most to design, promote, and contribute to programs and policies concerned with the greater good of the republic. This kind of rhetoric—and that is really what it is at this point—sounds very much like the Founders.

Question) Are their ways in which the religious right employs religious belief that are inconsistent with the Founding Fathers practices?

Fea) The irony in all of this is that it has been the Christian Right that has been most active in making an appeal to the Founding Fathers as a means of promoting their political agenda. If the Christian Right can prove with historical evidence that the Founders were indeed evangelical believers (or something close), then they can use the past to lament the country’s moral decay. I think that there are many Americans who are sympathetic with what Christian Right views on the family, limited abortions, traditional marriage, etc, but appealing to the founding does not seem to be the best or most accurate way to argue on this front. In other words, one would be hard pressed to make the argument that America was founded as a “Christian nation.”

So to answer your question, the Christian Right’s view of the history of the founding is marred by its members’ unwillingness to see the past in all of its complexity. Because they are so busy in trying to prove that America was founded as a “Christian nation” (which they do through the practice of irresponsible proof-texting from the writings of the Founders—choosing passages that contribute to their needs and ignoring the rest) they fail to see the Founders’ references to religion for what they really are. Again, as I noted in my answer to the previous question, the Democrats seem to have seized the historical high ground here.

Question) When the right or the left employs a framework of religion and it is perceived as being embraced simply as a political expediency and not a sincerely held view, what harm if any do you think we as a society suffer?

Fea) Great question. I worry about this, especially with the way that the Democrats employ faith. When they are invited to speak to church groups or at forums on faith and politics, they have become very good at using religious language. But when they talk about policy—whether it be the war in Iraq or Katrina or health care—they return to their secular sound bites. In other words, many potential voters for whom faith is important want to see how these candidates integrate their faith into their policies. For example, if Obama is so serious about his faith, then why doesn’t he present his health-care plan in terms of the Biblical injunction to care for the needy (or something similar)? Or if he opposes the Iraq war, then why doesn’t he talk about war as a means by which a soldier is stripped of her or his human dignity by referencing the fact that human beings are all created in the image of God? If you read his official statements on these matters there is no mention of his faith convictions whatsoever. They tend to be bracketed off into another category.

But what should worry most Christians are the potential dangers for religion when civic humanism and faith are fused. I mention this in passing at the end of my article, but let me try to elaborate a bit here. Civic humanism is, in many ways, simply another name for nationalism or patriotism. True patriots will sacrifice for their country. When religion is utilized solely for the purpose of the good of the nation (and this is the way the founders meant it to be), then religion can get co-opted by patriotism and it thus loses its prophetic voice to speak to the culture at large. Christians ultimately owe their greatest loyalty to God, not the state. So if religion is a tool to make the state/republic successful, then religion loses its power to critique society.


Question) You spoke in your article about how the three front-runner Democratic candidates were embracing a meld of civic humanism and Christian faith in their speeches. Do you think that Democratic candidates can reach Christian voters by embracing a common good vision without embracing policies that place restrictions on abortion and homosexual marriage?

Fea) Another good question. We will have to see how it all plays out, but I do not think that the Democrats can expect to win over too many members of the Christian Right. I am not a political scientist, but I think the best the Democrats can hope for is to win over values voters who may share some of the Christian Right’s views on abortion and gay marriage, but are looking for a deeper and richer discussion of the role of religion in American life. It will be interesting to see how the Christian Right responds if Rudy Giuliani, a candidate who shares none of their social views, gets the nomination. Such a nomination would take abortion and gay rights off the table. If they throw their support behind Giuliani simply because he is a Republican or strong on defense and security, and reject a Democratic candidate who is willing to take Christian faith seriously, then it will say a lot about the Christian Right.

Question) We have seen a lot polarization in our political discourse. Much of this polarization has focused on issued raised by the Religious Right as matters of faith. If faith has played a role in polarizing our political discussions, do you think faith can play a role in unifying Americans in their political discourse?

Fea) This is certainly possible if Christians of all stripes would be willing to learn how to show love, compassion, understanding, and hospitality to people with whom they differ. The Founders certainly believed that religion could contribute to the moral improvement of the society, but they were also living in a fairly homogeneous world that had very few non-Christians, let alone Muslims, etc… Any sense of national unity informed by religion would have to be a grassroots movement. It would have to begin in the churches, synagogues, and mosques. It would require people to live their faith in a way that impacts their everyday lives. It would require that people of faith try to understand those with whom they disagree before they condemn them and perhaps even find some common ground in which they might work together for the common good. This does not mean that individuals should give up their faith for some sort of watered-down religious pluralism in the name of national unity. It does mean that people with firm religious convictions must be willing to share in the common humanity that we all share—a humanity, as Christians believe, come from the fact that humans are all created by and in some ways are thus part of God’s people. As an historian who studies human nature for a living, I am often skeptical about whether American society will ever be able to pull this off.

I might add again, however, that Christianity (the tradition that I know best) understands unity not in terms of national unity or how the Church might serve the state. While Christians can certainly contribute to national unity (as the Founders argue), Christians believe that they are members of God’s kingdom and not the kingdoms of this world. Or as the 4th century theologian Augustine put it, Christians are part of the “city of God,” not the “city of man.” If such a teaching is taken seriously, then unity should be an important part of bringing Christians together in America, rather than dividing them. But taken to its logical conclusion, it is also possible that this teaching might work against national unity since it does not include people of other faiths. This is why religious freedom has proven to be such a success in America.


John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. A specialist in early American history, his most recent book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Enlightenment in America, is due out in early 2008 with the University of Pennsylvania Press. John is a regular writer for the nationally syndicated History News Service and is currently working on a book about “Christian America.” He can be reached at jfea@messiah.edu or Messiah.edu.
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