October 30, 2014

Religion & Politics: Do candidates' religious beliefs really matter?

We are nearing the end of this midterm election season, and there's definitely been plenty of reason to talking about religion and politics this year alone.

I ran across this letter to the editor, and I thought it is a great jumping point to talk about WHY we should care about a candidate's religion, at least in our current political climate. The few times that I have mentioned not voting for someone because of their religious convictions (especially creationist leanings), I've been met with, "But isn't that discrimination? What does religion have to do with his/her ability to do the job? Shouldn't you be looking at their qualifications? Why do their personal beliefs matter?"

And these are all good questions. First, we'll look at the letter, and then we'll look at why (in my opinion, of course) it's important to consider a candidate's religious leanings...in our current political climate.

Here's the letter itself:

I think we're all kind of missing the point here. It shouldn't matter whether Steve Daines believes in creationism or evolution; it's his own personal belief and it really shouldn't sway anyone's vote. 
It doesn't matter now and it won't matter if he's elected. It's like saying I'm going to vote for Amanda Curtis because she has pretty eyes, or Daines because he drives a nice car. 
If I vote for Daines it will be because he supports our basic rights, not because he believes in god.

 So we have a citizen really concerned here about a candidate's religion swaying people politically.

For reference, Daines has been criticized for his connection to the Creation Museum (that was willing to host a fundraiser for him) and for his purported belief in teaching creationism in public schools.

It's a situation, though, that has many connections to political races around our nation right now, however, because many right-leaning politicians have these ties or express these beliefs, some honestly and some because they feel it would be political suicide not to.

So why does a candidate's religion matter? Let's take a look.

Religion is a powerful motivator in an individual's life.

Religion is a powerful motivation. This is indisputable.

It holds sway in a way that is unimaginable in most circumstances. Very few other causes even come close, and I would argue that nothing comes so close on so large a scale. Religion can motivate positively or negatively--it can be the force that compels people to reach out and help the poor or it can be the one that inspires them to wreak havoc, commit violence, and cause suffering.

It's the force the motivates so many doctors battling Ebola in West Africa, with little thought for the risks, but it is also the force that motivates ISIS.

This is the dual nature of religiosity.

In our current political climate, religion as a key motivator makes it an important aspect when voting. Because we are so amenable to allowing religion to influence our politics, understanding a politician's religion's underlying tenets are important to understanding what religious forces will be motivating their decisions and votes while in office.

Religion encourages believers to regulate others.

The aspect of religion that often encourages adherents to regulate the behavior of others is exceptionally troubling when you combine it with the political power to make legislative decisions.

For instance, religious belief is one of the key forces motivating the pushback against reproductive choice. This often flies in the face of established science. For instance, if you look at Burwell v Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court accepted that the closely-held belief that these contraception options are abortifacients was more than enough for the company not to have to cover them--even though established science said these methods do not cause abortions.

Many monotheistic religions in particular push proselytizing. It makes sense, if you think about it. If you believe someone will suffer forever because they chose not to believe or because they had never had the opportunity to believe, then proselytizing becomes not a duty or obligation, but a kindness. It's compassionate.

However, when you combine these facets of religious belief with political power, you give candidates the ability to run roughshod over the beliefs of others--often for so long as they have the support of the majority. In a country where the majority shares relatively similar beliefs, this happens at the expense of minorities. Often this regulation is in spite of the fact that the behavior in question has no effect on the majority that disagrees with it--it simply must be regulated because it is against their belief system.

Religion is steeped in oppression.

This is not a popular opinion. It's often met with, "BUT IT WAS GOOD FOR ME", and this is often true. See the first point, about the duality of religious belief.

But the very basic truth is that religion itself is based in the concept of oppression. We are meant to repress a variety of basic natures, often in truly unnatural ways, for the simple benefit of going somewhere in an afterlife. Religions turn a blind eye to the oppression of women, and they give the seal of approval to slavery. They place believers on a pedestal above those that do not believe the same. Even if you'd like to write off all of those aspects, the very idea that humans are in need of saving is oppressive.

Am I saying any religious candidate is going to try to actively oppress people? No, not in the slightest.

But this is one reason why it is important to understand the role that a candidate's religion plays in their life.

Religion has been set up as anti-science and anti-intellectualism.

Religion has a long history of obstructing science. This isn't conjecture; it's established fact. This is the reason that Copernicus waited until his deathbed to publish his heliocentric model of the universe--and even then, emphasized that it was only a mathematical model.

When Galileo proved the Copernican model throughs astronomical observation, he was placed on house arrest. His life was in danger.

Further back, Bruno was burned along with all of his works for daring to acknowledge that the universe might be infinite (because nothing but God could be infinite).

And these are just a handful of such examples.

Today, religion flies in the face of climate science. They battle in the field of biology. They undermine scientific education.

Intellectuals--especially those of different or no belief--are painted as warriors of Satan, wittingly or unwittingly, in a spiritual battle. Granted, that's from a conservative fundamental evangelical setting--but it's scary to think that these people are voting, in large numbers, and hold considerable sway over policy in our nation.

I don't personally believe that religion is anti-science inherently, because despite the obvious conflict I had with it personally, there are plenty of people that can compartmentalize and find room for both. More power to them.

But again, the variety of reactions are why it is so important to understand where a candidate is coming from religiously.


So what am I saying, don't vote for a religious candidate?

Well, no. Then you'd have no one left to vote for, or at least, I wouldn't.

But it is important to understand where an individual is coming from religiously, because it does influence their mindset in office. That's just the way we are as humans, or at least as Americans.

I truly hope the day comes where we can say, "I have  no idea what religion this person is and I don't care, because I know they will make the best decisions for our entire nation/state/city/county," but that's simply not where we are yet.

Personally, I believe that all officials should govern from a secular mindset. They should look what is best for our secular nation, regardless of any religious leanings or teachings, any dire apocalyptic leanings, or what have you. That's should be our default position. It's the one that improves our chances for longevity, it's the one that protects all viewpoints, no matter how small a minority.

But again, that's not where we are.

Where we are is in a nation where religion wields an astronomical influence. In such a climate, we simply must be aware of candidates religious leanings, and yes, we should take them into account when deciding who to vote for. I would expect no less of someone who was for gun control who chose not to vote for candidates receiving support from the NRA. I may not personally agree with their position, but I completely understand why they make the decision, even if everything else about the candidate is perfect--that connection would be a motivator.

Remember to get out and vote on Tuesday. I know that's where I will be.

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