Faith: How Much is Too Much?

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

Today the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and the Yale Forum on Faith and Politics are co-hosting Voices and Votes: Religious Convictions in the Public Sphere, a conference on the intersection of religion and politics in America. I'll be liveblogging from the conference throughout the day.

Below is a running summary of the morning's second panel, "Candidates Expressing their Faith: How Much is Too Much?"

The panel features Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Henry Brinton Pastor, Columnist and Author of the Balancing Act; Flo McAfee, Former White House Religious Liaison for President Clinton; and Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Souther Baptist Convention. The moderator is Melissa Matthes.

MODERATOR: What do you make of the current expectation that candidates demonstrate their faith?

WALKER: I know some candidates will use their faith to curry favor with some constituents. But I think that in the main it's a natural expression of a candidate's feelings. And I think that's a good thing. ... There's no test of faith for an office. That's a legal prohibition, not a practical one.

BRINTON: For candidates to talk about their faith is fundamentally an important way for them to connect with voters. It's a way of revealing their hearts to those they want to serve. In that sense, it's very legitimate... In a population where 90% believe in God, to talk about God is natural. It's way for them to talk about things of deepest significance to themselves and the community.

LAND: Whether or how a candidate talks about faith is the candidate's business. Then it's up to the people to evaluate if their faith is authentic or something they like. ... Look at Lieberman. The NYT started to count the number of times Joe Lieberman used the word God in a speech, and implied they thought it was illegitimate. But Lieberman was making the case that his faith is central to who he is as a candidate. Whether that faith is authentic or relevant is up to the American people to decide ... Who knows, maybe it will take an orthodox Jew to make us comfortable with talking about religion.

MODERATOR: What counts as religious expression? What's appropriate?

LAND: The American people have a funny way of deciding for themselves what's an issue. Look at Lieberman again - his Jewish faith wasn't an issue. I think if candidates challenge the public to live up to their commitment to religious pluralism, they will.

MCAFEE: You have to look at code and buzzwords. There are seven different kinds of Baptists in the African-American community. There are buzzwords that let you know who is authentic in those communities and who are not.

BRINTON: It's a shame that all the focus was on the Koran in the coverage of the election of the first Muslim to congress. It was a missed opportunity for him to talk about what it means to be Muslim in America today. There are some great insights that a practicing Muslim in office could share that could really have a powerful, peacemaking effect, particularly given the violence and sectarianism within other Muslim communities abroad.

MODERATOR: I'd like to talk about race and religion. For African-Americans, race is the primary indicator of who they will vote for in a presidential election. For whites, it's religious attendance. Who then are religious professions for?

LAND: I don't think there's any racial coding at all. Look back at JFK, his faith and his strong record of supporting civil rights. ... Today look at Baptists: we're now 20% ethnic minorities, and half of our growth comes from ethnic minorities.

MCAFEE: My mother was Republican, and probably traced that back to Lincoln ... then, came Kennedy and the civil rights movement. But now that's starting to change. The generation that came after the civil rights movement isn't as monolithic in its concerns.

BRINTON: The historical record is never as neat and tidy as we want it to be. Look at the 1963 March in Washington: Charlton Heston, as a California Republican, read a James Baldwin speech there prior to MLK Jr's speech ... Look also at the biblical story of Exodus. It's been a foundational story for a number of liberation movements. So when the Exodus note is sounded in a political speech, it's going to strike a chord. ... Religious language is also a language intended to sound notes of moral clarity, about moral obligation and righteous living. That's going to have a strong impact that will either rally support or push people away. That impact won't necessarily be tied to race.

MODERATOR: How do religious expressions in the public sphere risk delegitimizing their religious import? Does something like ceremonial deism diminish religious authority? Does the church risk losing its prophetic tradition if it's used publicly?

BRINTON: One of the debates in my church is whether it's appropriate to display the American flag in the sanctuary. We've settled on holidays, which I think is appropriate ... it shouldn't be a part of our permanent décor, because it then loses its import. When you bring it in occasionally, it forces you to think about the nature of faith and citizenship. When symbols like that are rarer, they have more symbolic power.

LAND: I was once asked by a foreign pastor why we have an American flag in our church. And I didn't really have an immediate answer, but then I realized that perhaps it's because we weren't required to have a flag in the church. We could choose to have it. ... Very often it's easy to make patriotism an idol. If you equate God with America, that's blasphemous and idolatrous. ...

WALKER: Ceremonial deism can turn into an idolatry of nationalism on the one hand, but it can also lead to a vitiating of religious principles on the other. It's a difficult tension.

MODERATOR: In 2 Corinthians 2:17, Paul asserts that "we are not peddlers of God's word, like so many." How to we distinguish between a candidate bearing Christian witness and proselytizing? When is a candidate's religious speech that of a public official beholden to the establishment clause, or that of a private person expressing personal beliefs?

WALKER: That's why we have so many establishment cases in the courts ... It's really difficult to sort out. It depends on the setting, on whether that person is speaking officially. If as an official the primary effect is not to advance religion, then that should be okay.

MODERATOR: Flo, was this an issue at all in the Clinton White House?

MCAFEE: One of the best examples was when we were working on the church fires in the south at that time. When the President went down to South Carolina, it was the first time one of the pastors had met his local mayor. It was the President who brought this small town's pastor and mayor together. And we felt that's where we try to use our faith to bring people together, to use faith to indirectly find ways to answer difficult questions.

LAND: I'd like to draw a distinction. If candidates bring faith to bear on a piece of legislation, they can make the case for it in moral terms. That's their right. Congress can then decide whether or not they want to ratify it. But this is not the case for judges. They are not allowed to bring their personal faith to bear on these decisions. ... These are difficult issues when it comes to the law. The country is divided about it, and that's why the Supreme Court is divided about it.

BRINTON: As a pastor, I think there are ways the government has inhibited the free exercise of religion. For example, what's happening at the Air Force Academy is show how certain members of the government can inhibit the way in which others may exercise their religion...

Q from audience: Why is religion a special case? Why is religion so fascinating as an expression and not just any philosophy that candidate might express?

WALKER: Because it's important to us. It's a part of our history and a part of our culture.

LAND: I think it's in part a reaction as well, to the 60s upsurge that wanted a secular public and secular society, and that wanted to remove religion from politics. There were elites who feared the danger and volatility of religion and wanted to remove it ... I think the media have gotten better with this, but I do think that the decision-makers in the media tend to be holdovers from that 60s mindset.

BRINTON: I think it goes back even further than that. The founders also understood the danger of religion, which is why it is a special case.

McAFEE: Well there's at least one other one - racism - which is why the interchange of race and religion is so important to discuss openly.

Q from audience: Lieberman was criticized by the left within the American Jewish community for speaking of his faith publicly, and by the right for misrepresenting the Jewish faith, for making it too universal. ... My question is do you have to make your faith universal in America? Does a person have to talk about his faith?

LAND: That's a question that the candidate and the American people have to decide ... the only candidate who needs to talk about his faith is probably Mitt Romney. I'd encourage him to do a Jack Kennedy, to proactively address the issue.

BRINTON: Successful politicians speak about a universal God. If you speak to specifically or narrowly about God, you probably can't appeal to a broad enough section to get elected.

Q from audience: What of governor of Virginia, who doesn't believe in capital punishment, but will execute death sentences as the governor of a state that allows for capital punishment. Isn't that a compromise on his part?

BRINTON: You could say it's a compromise. You could also say he's just doing his job...

WALKER: There is a legitimate issue here of how far you can go before you have to resign.

LAND: Look at Judge Moore in Alabama. He didn't challenge a law, he challenged the rule of law. If he felt he couldn't uphold the law, then he should have resigned.