04/08/2012 09:46 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2012

Yet Another Republican Provides Exactly the Wrong View of Politics and Faith

In the Easter forum on politics and faith held by NBC's Meet the Press, Representative Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) articulated, though that is using the term loosely, exactly the wrong view of the relationship between politics and faith:

But going back to your question about Mormonism th-- everyone in-- in politics is gonna have some sort of role-- i-- is gonna be influenced by their faith whether it's Emanuel [Cleaver] by his faith, whether it's me by my faith. And I think we can't talk about having-- s-- politics void of any religious faith because then what you're saying is you have -- you're asking people to not be who they are.

In fact that is exactly what we ask of people in public office. And exactly what we should ask of them. Representative Labrador is making the error of confusing personal ethics with professional ethics. Privately one can be directed by one's faith, and of course make a broad range of choices with political repercussions: where to live, or shop, or work, or send one's children to school, to name but a few. Professionals must have work-related actions directed by the ethics of their professional community. For public servants, that means setting personal feelings aside and conforming to practices endorsed by institutions established for the public good -- 'faithfully serving' in this context means serving according to the procedures and practices that one's institutional role demands.

That is not an unfair or unreasonable expectation because public officials have actively sought this burden. Choosing a life of service requires one make decisions not only benefiting all citizens but to do so for reasons that all citizens can accept. "I gotta be me," simply is not the attitude of a responsible public servant.

In recent years this distinction has been treated in the work of philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Requiring all citizens to express politically legitimate views in a secular language of reason, he argues, imposes an undue burden on believers. Belief directs the lives of many individuals and makes it difficult for many of them to satisfy the condition of public rationality. In order to participate in public life, such individuals are forced to find rational justification for positions grounded in belief, and non-believing citizens feel no corresponding imposition. The secular state must thus ask whether it is imposing asymmetrical obligations on its religious citizens that would be at odds with its protection of the freedom of belief for everyone.

Though he argues that expressions of belief must be permissible in casual political speech, Habermas imposes an 'institutional translation proviso' requiring core state institutions to impose the test of reason in their deliberations and procedures. It is the role of these core institutions, and of the public officials who serve them, to preserve neutrality in the face of competing worldviews.

Democracy requires that those who are governed by laws view themselves as authors of those laws. When state officials adhere to the democratic procedures that they have agreed to uphold, they preserve the rights of the citizens who have put them in office. If state officials compose or construe laws based on a particular religious view, they are depriving citizens who do not share that view of the rights of democratic citizenship.

That is why it is troubling to hear a public official speak the way that Mr. Labrador has done. Even if his personal religion does not move him actively to repress those who are not Mormon, his confession that he is directed in his office by personal faith is a violation of his responsibility to serve his constituents.

But this is obvious: What really offends about Labrador's statements is their lack of thoughtfulness. There are many smart and important things that can be said about the role of religion in public life. No Republican seems to be saying them, despite the party's declared investment in the topic.