Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Partisan Religion?

James Skillen


November 1, 2004

With the presidential election still a day off, there remains, unfortunately, good reason to fear a repeat, and even an expansion, of the confusion and controversy that marred the voting four years ago. It is equally unfortunate that the presidential race this time has not given us a repeat, much less an expansion, of a very positive element from the last time: a constructive discussion about religion in our public life.

It's hard to believe it now, but during the last campaign both the Democratic and the Republican candidate grappled with how the government might more fruitfully and justly relate to faith-based social services. Usually, religion's role in America's public life is dealt with in a polarized way. One side prays for a Christian America, the other hopes for a radically secular republic.

Yet for many months during the last presidential campaign, one focus instead was how the federal government, in partnering with social-service providers, could better respect religious liberty without establishing religion. The Bush campaign was the most vigorous with ideas, and even inspired articles on the roots of its vision in the Catholic and Reformed public philosophies. Yet Al Gore, too, endorsed a central reform, calling for the expansion of Charitable Choice.

This time around, sadly, religion has played a much less inspiring role. True, the Bush campaign is committed to extending and deepening the faith-based initiative. True, Senator John Kerry says he supports more government partnerships with faith-based organizations—although he also wants to add new restrictions to those partnerships. But the main focus on religion has been different than this.

President Bush, as always, speaks freely on the campaign trail about his personal faith. But he has done little this time to articulate how those religious beliefs are connected with the goals and limits, the hopes and concerns, of his policies. And his campaign has sought to treat evangelical Christians as party stalwarts at its disposal in the partisan battle for the presidency. Meanwhile, Senator Kerry, while lately emphasizing his Catholic heritage, on the one hand assures voters that his faith will not dictate his policies on stem-cell research, redefining marriage, and abortion, and on the other declares that policies he will urge on all of us concerning poverty, taxes, and health insurance stem from his personal religious convictions.

We ought to welcome, and even demand, that candidates tell us about their deepest beliefs—yet we should also hear from them a coherent account of how those beliefs relate to their political views. It is perfectly reasonable, and right, for a presidential candidate not to try to turn every one of his church's positions into binding law—yet we rightly then should hear how such tolerance is related to those religious convictions, rather than merely being given the compartmentalization of religious convictions from difficult and divisive public controversies.

And while it is natural for political parties and campaigns to regard congregations and religious beliefs as weapons in the partisan electoral battle, we believers dare not let ourselves ever become merely a party's "base," merely a resource to be used in the electoral fight.

If nothing else, this utilitarian role for religion in this year's presidential campaign should remind us that if we want our deepest commitments to make a significant contribution to our public debates and the common good, then we can't hang back from engagement until campaign strategists push our buttons. We have to be at work each day, helping to shape debates, issues, policies, and practices, both in politics and in society. If your faith is to count, it has to be at work long before, and long after, Election Day. So vote, because big issues are at stake, but don't stop with voting.

—Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”