By Eric Von Salzen
The other day, a Roman Catholic friend enclosed a prayer card with my birthday card. It was a “Prayer For Judges”. I’m a lawyer, and I supposed my friend couldn’t find any prayers for lawyers (we’re hopeless, I guess), and sent the next best thing.
It wasn’t, though, a prayer to support judges in their difficult but important work, or a prayer that God grant them wisdom and discernment. It was a prayer about abortion.
The Prayer For Judges said that judges had legalized abortion by putting their own opinions ahead of God’s Law, and it called on judges to start applying God’s Law and end abortion. I can’t quote it exactly, because I didn’t keep it.
Now the fact is, I oppose abortion, and I think that Rowe v. Wade was wrongly decided. There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits states from regulating or prohibiting abortion. The Supreme Court majority did read its own social and moral values into the Constitution in reaching its decision. I don’t think judges should do that. To that extent, I agree with whoever wrote the Prayer For Judges.
But my mother taught me as a little boy that two wrongs don’t make a right. If it was wrong for the Supreme Court majority to impose their social and moral values on the country by legalizing abortion, it would be just as wrong for different judges to impose their notion of God’s Law to end abortion. The Constitution doesn’t embody the personal opinions of Harry Blackmun, nor does it embody the religious convictions of the Conference of Bishops or the College of Cardinals. Or even of The Godfather.
But judges are a special case. The rest of us, as citizens in a democratic republic, as voters, as writers of letters to the editor, as participants in political parties or tea parties, certainly have the right to use God’s Law, as we understand it, in deciding what policies are right and wrong, and therefore what candidates do and don’t merit our support at the polls. And as Christians that’s what we think we ought to do, isn’t it?
Of course, translating our religious convictions into political choices isn’t easy, and in this post I’m not going to discuss how we decide, based on God’s Law, who we should vote for, or what policies we should support. That’s too big an issue. I’m going to focus on a narrower issue: How our religious faith figures in the way we talk about political issues, and how we try to persuade our fellow citizens to support the positions and candidates we favor.
And the first thing you notice, when you think about that issue is that we don’t often use religious arguments when we try to persuade people to support whatever position it is that we advocate. Our religious convictions may lead us to support or oppose particular policies or candidates; but when we try to persuade others to join us, we don’t usually do so by telling them that it’s God’s will.
One of the reasons we don’t do so is because we know that it generally won’t work. If someone doesn’t share your religious convictions, or isn’t sure what he or she believes in that regard, the religious argument is unlikely to persuade them to support the policy or candidate that you support. Before the religious argument could be effective you’d have to first persuade them that your religious view are right; you’d have give them a full-fledged indoctrination in your religious tradition, and persuade them to embrace it. If you succeed in doing that, you’ll have accomplished a conversion and may have saved a soul, but by the time you do so, the election will be long since over. So when we try to persuade those who don’t already agree with us on a political issue, we usually don’t base our arguments on religious principles, even if those are why we support of oppose the policies we do. We try to construct arguments based whatever values they already have.
Another reason that we usually don’t use religious arguments when we are trying to persuade others to support our positions is that we sense that such arguments can be divisive in a society like ours, with a wide variety of religious and secular faiths. Divisive arguments are sometimes necessary, but we try to avoid them if we can. Suppose I want to persuade someone to support teaching Creationism in the public schools. If I argue that the Bible says that God created the world in seven days so it must be true, no matter what atheist scientists say to the contrary, not only will my argument fail to convince someone who isn’t already a Biblical literalist, I will offend non-fundamentalists and drive them away from my position. A more effective approach might be to argue that the schools should present both sides of controversial issues, because that’s being open minded and tolerant of the views of those we disagree with. We all like to think we’re tolerant, don’t we?
A third, and critical, reason not to use religious beliefs in political discussions is that religious beliefs tend to be about ends, and political issues tend to be about means. Christian religious beliefs, for example, may lead you to believe that you have a moral duty to help the poor, but they won’t tell you whether raising the minimum wage will help the poor or hurt them; for that you need economics. Your religious principles may lead you to want to free the oppressed, to protect the helpless, to stop the evil doer, but whether it’s possible to do this by military action, or diplomacy, or covert action – or whether under the circumstances the best thing to do is admit our helplessness in the face of evil – requires knowledge, experience, and expertise that must be found elsewhere than in scripture.
It’s not impossible to find political issues that can be resolved (for some) solely on religious grounds, but it’s not common either. In writing this post, I’ve used abortion and Creationism as examples of political issues that, for a lot of people (not all, by any means), can be resolved on purely religious grounds. I’m hard-pressed to think of a lot of other examples.
So we generally don’t rely on religious arguments to persuade others to agree with us on political issues or candidates. Yet religious beliefs – or our understanding of God’s Law, to go back to the Prayer For Judges – are important to political decision-making. To many of us, religious principles underlie our political principles, even though we don’t use religious values to explain our politics to others who don’t share them. Our religious beliefs may give us the courage, the energy, and the endurance to pursue political goals. Religious principles may also help us to energize others, who share our beliefs, to join in trying to implement them. The civil rights movement is an obvious example. So is the Prayer For Judges; it probably won’t persuade Protestant or secularist pro-choicers to become pro-lifers, but it may rally Roman Catholic pro-lifers to try harder to support a cause they already believe in.
The other day, I saw another example of how religion can be used to support political advocacy. The Raleigh paper ran a front-page story about people, hit by hard economic times, increasing their use of food assistance programs. The paper illustrated the story with a photo of an out-of-work father and his two daughters holding hands as they say grace over a meal made possible by government food assistance. Leave aside the question whether such advocacy belongs in a news story, and just focus on how effective it is. It’s effective because we think that religious people, those who pray before meals, are good, hard-working folks, who are more likely to give a hand-out than take one. If they need this kind of help, aren’t we glad they can get it? It’s a picture worth a thousand words.