Can Legislators Properly Consider God in the Decisionmaking Process?

I’ll preview the conclusion: if it’s outcome determinative… no.

Disgraced former Senator Rick Santorum grabbed headlines yesterday by saying he was “frankly appalled” by President Kennedy’s “radical” statements during the 1960 campaign, which amounted to the following, now sadly somewhat controversial but succinct statement of a basic, foundational principle: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Jack Kennedy is now one of America’s favorite former presidents. Nevertheless, says Santorum, for JFK’s sins, “Jefferson is spinning in his grave.”

We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process.

It’s a hallmark of the tea party’s de facto religion — ancestor worship of the founding generation — that its adherents in fact have no idea what the Founders believed, or what they fought for. Santorum demonstrates and compounds that ignorance on the pages of other papers, in a long screed ably taken down elsewhere, but to that let us add some. Jefferson was a deist, openly hostile to organized religion (and especially Catholicism) as it was practiced in his time, whose approach to the Bible was precisely River Tam’s [YouTube]: to tear out the pages that don’t make sense, resulting in a slimmer, simply moral document. It’s for this sin that the Santorums of Texas eliminated Jefferson from the curriculum.

Jefferson’s “wall of separation” was very real, very present in the early Republic, and defined how he saw his position: as a temporal officer, with responsibilities exclusively to the office, and no higher power. Hence, for example, Jefferson’s remarkable decision to forgo a thanksgiving prayer, for fear of converting the early Presidency into some American pontifex maximus. That understanding should control today.

We elect legislators to serve the people, the office, and the Constitution. Not God. In discharging that role, legislators must exercise moral judgment, a task that will often require reference to religious morality. That’s fine, and moreover, unavoidable. But legislators should not be in the business of making legislative decisions exclusively to appease their favored interpretation of their favored deity. Where the law of the land and the principles of the Constitution point in one direction, and God, as interpreted by man, points in another, the former should always control, as a function of the oath of office, and the basic principles of democracy.

We expect that God will guide our magistrates, our courts, and our nation. But how vain to imagine he needs our help to do so?

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7 comments

  1. There’s a big difference between a legislator considering religion when voting and considering it when crafting legislation.

  2. Interesting: expand on that?

    1. A vote based on one’s religious beliefs isn’t necessarily bad, especially if it coincides with that of the majority of your constituents. Legislations crafted crafted to advance a religious agenda is always bad.

      For instance, if DOMA had rightly never even been drafted, legislators wouldn’t have even had a vote to consider.

      1. You’re mixing up your categories: “voting” vs. “crafting” and “considering religion” vs. “advancing a religious agenda”. There are four combinations there.

        Besides, I’m not sure that latter distinction can be made so clearly. If, say, a Catholic representative supports better social security, he could both do so from general beliefs about supporting the poor, but also in a sense be “advancing” the Catholic agenda of improving social justice.

  3. One should also keep in mind that an important aspect of that “radical” statement of JFK’s was that at the time, probably by far the greater concern was that a Catholic President would not separate (the Catholic) Church and State – that his election would be a step towards “subordinating the country to the Pope” or whatever other spectres were being conjured up at the time.

    A pretty classic example of judging a past event in the light of present conditions.

  4. david boudreau · ·

    WHAT GOD ? ……or should I say WHO’S GOD,….. or better yet WHICH GOD ?

  5. […] private moral choices of others. And it fits handily with the American Constitution’s formal declaration of its own religious neutrality, and its creation of what is (in the view of some scholars) a public, pan-American secular morality […]

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