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Does religious faith make someone a better politician?

Question: A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans agreed with the statement: “Religious faith makes someone a better politician.” In fact, a majority said they would never vote for a candidate who had no religious faith. Do you agree that religious faith helps make someone a better politician?

Answer: As a Christian pastor, people would probably expect me to answer this question with a “yes.” But as a matter of fact, I think the issue is much more complicated and the question can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Here’s some issues I’d consider before answering this question.

* Is there any evidence that religious faith makes someone a better politician? Historically, have religious leaders done better than non-religious leaders? I don’t see it.

* Why would religious belief make a person a better politician? A political issue is one that divides “the polis” (Greek for “city state”). Politicians should help us resolve political issues. Why does a person’s religious belief or lack of religious belief make them better at doing this?

Of course, if the “polis” is largely characterized by a particular religious faith, it would probably be an advantage for that polis’s politicians to share that faith. But this doesn’t tell us anything about the value of religion in politics, for the same would hold true of all shared values in a polis. A leader has to share common ground with the people she leads.

* In pluralistic settings such as America, it seems to me a politician’s religious belief might actually make them a worse politician. Historically, when looking for solutions to political problems, people with strong religious beliefs have tended to look for theological solutions rooted in what they believe to be divine revelation. In pluralistic societies in which people hold to many different religious beliefs, rooting political solutions in divine revelation would tend to further divide the polis.

* I’d argue that the greatest advance of political freedom happened during the 17th and 18th centuries when secular authorities forced an end to religious violence (with the Peace of Wesphalia in 1648) and political thinking became separated from religious belief. (A great book on this topic is A Stillborn God by Mark Lilla). In countries (like America) that put a premium on the secular value of political freedom, I don’t see that possessing a religious faith would necessarily be an advantage.

* A politician may have greater peace, courage and wisdom because of their religious faith. This would obviously be an advantage to them. But this doesn’t really help us answer the question we’re wrestling with, because you can find plenty of people with religious faith who are anxious, cowardly and stupid, and you can find people who lack religious faith who still have peace, courage and wisdom.

* Before answering the question about whether religious faith makes a person a better politician, I think we’d need to know which religious faith we’re talking about. A person who defends the claim that religious faith makes a person a better politician and leaves it at that has to be prepared to say a Muslim extremist would make a better leader than a secular person. Only Muslim extremists would support this.

I suspect that those who defend the idea that religious faith helps a person be a better politician actually mean that a person who embraces their own religious faith would be better in office than a person who didn’t embrace their own religious faith. But this, clearly, is simply prejudice. It hardly constitutes a rational justification for answering “yes” to the question, “Does religious faith (in and of itself) make a person a better politician?”

In light of these considerations, I think I’d have to answer this question “no,” though there are particular circumstances in which a particular kind of faith would be an advantage.

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