Leave religion at politics’ door

By Lee Feder

For the last several issues, Time magazine has published a weekly meter of a different presidential candidate’s appeal to the religious right. The poll is almost comical, especially when it reveals John McCain’s pandering to the evangelical Christian community by expressing his desire to undergo an evangelical baptism.

Say what?

Talk of religion has no place in the public discourse, period. If a candidate believes abortion is wrong because of his religious beliefs, all the voters need to know is his anti-abortion stance. His religion is personal and voters should select candidates on policy, not on religious affiliation.

Moreover, airing biblical beliefs in the public sphere allows for senseless debates that detract from the most important issues. While abortion is surely a hot topic for many people, its political relevance pales in comparison to Iraq, the trade deficit, global warming, coping with China’s emergence as a world power, providing health care to the uninsured . the list of relevant, significant issues is pages long. Abortion, school prayer and the like are “hot button” issues conservatives use to rile up both sides and degenerate good policy debate into shouting matches. Religion, then, is a tool used by certain groups to motivate the religious population and coerce it to vote based on issues that are most likely irrelevant to the national populace.

One argument in favor of permitting religion as justification for policies – as in, “I believe abortion is wrong because my religion says so” – is that it reveals the character of the politician. While this is true to some extent, it does not reveal the most important aspects of potential elected officials. Good leaders have personalities that empower them to persuade the opposition to compromise, that allow them to listen to and reconcile different points of view, and that encourage open debate and research into finding the best solution. Whether a person draws inspiration from his religion is immaterial because strong leaders put the good of their country ahead of their personal interests.

Coercing a politician (with a serious chance to win) to openly declare that he will ignore good advice in favor of divine motivation is nigh impossible; if George W. Bush avoided declaring his devotion to religion-inspired governance, the chances any other candidate will are slim at best. Remember the term “compassionate conservative?” That was as close as Bush came to declaring his divine source of policy.

Religion as a matter of public discussion, therefore, is nearly as comical as the Time poll. A person’s religion is a serious, personal matter, and using it as a political tool to gain votes demeans its importance. Using religious issues like abortion to compel the pious to vote one way or another is a dirty trick. Even permitting religion in the public forum allows for this abuse of religion. Obviously, there is no easy solution as explicitly prohibiting such speech has constitutional ramifications. Politicians, then, must take the initiative and self-censor their speech and limit their public discourse to relevant issues, as religion has no place in politics.