I would like to focus here on whether the Mayor should allow his religious beliefs to inform his policy decisions as mayor, which dominates their brief exchange. The Mayor rejected the Councilman’s request to sign a resolution in support of same-sex marriage not on the basis of widely-held social norms, such as the highly-plausible inference that such a redefinition could open the door to even more redefinition, such as allowing polygamy, or that the recognition of homosexuality has led to discrimination against his fellow Christians. Rather he did so on the basis that he is a Christian, a “minister of the Gospel,” and as such, he cannot support “what God calls an abomination.” My question is whether this is a legitimate position for a Christian to take, that is, May an elected official be informed in his decisions by his faith? My answer is, with some important qualifications, “Absolutely.” To make this case, I’ll address what I believe to be the Councilman’s points based upon his email. (I will stick with the ones that I believe are the clearest, since the context is missing for some of them.)
“’Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ [is] an admonition concerning responsibilities to the ‘state’ as opposed to those to God.” My question is, Why can’t these coincide? Councilman Johnson fails to mention the second part of the verse, which calls us to “render unto God the things that are God’s.” If God instituted the state to serve the common good and administer justice, a Christian citizen can render what is due both God and the state at the same time. And so a Christian entering public office need not become a functional atheist in order to faithfully carry out his duties. Surely the Councilman would not accept such a restriction on himself if he were asked to leave his sexual orientation at the Council Door. Why should the Mayor be any different?
To anticipate the common misunderstanding that the First Amendment prohibits religion from influencing public policy, I will simply state as briefly as possible that it does no such thing. Such an understanding of the First Amendment was neither intended at the Constitutional Convention, nor was this the understanding of the Supreme Court prior to 1947. And even in its most hostile decisions on religion, the modern Supreme Court has never taken things quite this far. (Were the Court to nullify the freedom of conscience of religious adherents in this way, a constitutional amendment would be very much in order.) The Framers of the Constitution wished to prevent “establishment” of a religion by Congress. Establishment was commonly understood at the time to be state-administered religious tests for holding public office and taxation for ministers’ salaries, which is still found in Europe, not however the mere influence of religious belief on law and policy.
“For an elected official to be opposed to this or any other issue based upon their [sic] preferred book of religion, be it the Bible, Book of Mormon, Koran, Torah or the Vedas, begs credulity.” Unfortunately, this statement is a bit too terse for easy exposition, but I will assume Councilman Johnson means something like the following: “Once we allow officials to draw moral premises from the Bible, we must allow others to draw from just any religious book, and so anarchy will ensue.” Listing the Bible with the other books implies they’re all the same, which they are not (one exception: the Torah is part of the Bible). And as it happens, only one of these books accompanied and indeed inspired the rise of liberal democracy and the rights and freedoms that are woven into our national ethos, especially that all human beings are made in the divine image and thus are fundamentally equal, without which natural rights, and thus government by consent of the governed, are inconceivable. Historically, these fundamentals of liberal democracy were not derived from the Vedas nor from the Koran. As evidence, ask yourself where in the world liberal democracy with its robust theory of human rights did, and did not, arise. Attacking the Bible because it threatens liberal democracy is akin to attacking the earth because it threatens agriculture.
Ultimately, our political convictions are shaped by a variety of factors. Some are shaped by our faith, some by our parents, some by our life experiences. In a democracy, we must not seek to delegitimize our fellow citizens’ convictions. True tolerance is not a demand for capitulation, rather it is the respect we owe others when we don’t agree, even regarding the basis of their moral beliefs.
Nicholas Meriwether, PhD, is professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University. He is currently at work on a book investigating the relationship of the Christian faith to liberal democracy.