Reconciling Faith and Reason

The Gospel of Kennedy was eloquent and simple. Before being elected president, John F. Kennedy went to Houston in 1960 to basically state that his Roman Catholic faith was irrelevant: "Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."

The Gospel of Mitt was also eloquent but hardly simple. In his view, religion is absolutely relevant. Indeed, faith is essential to the very survival of freedom. "There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us," Mitt Romney said in a much-awaited speech last Thursday in College Station, just up the road from Houston. "If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams's words: 'We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion ... our Constitution,' he said, 'was made for a moral and religious people.' Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

Adams's point is not Romney's point. For Adams, the domain of faith is private and the communal benefit of faith is that it basically helps to discipline the passions and thus keeps citizens from going wild. The idea that faith can help decide social policy on, "the weighty threats that face us" was absolutely not Adams's intent, and even if it was, what does that mean for us now?

To silence critics who fear that Romney is laying the groundwork for an American Theocracy, he quickly moves to contradict the idea he just advanced--that faith and freedom must intersect, "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

So apparently religion should influence politics, but no one particular religion should influence politics. Unfortunately religion is not a generic drug. Religion comes in quite particular packaging. Romney's solution to this obvious problem is to imagine a kind of secular national faith whose content is purely moral and whose beliefs are shared by all faiths: "It's important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter, on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course."

The first problem with this view is that there is in fact no "common creed of moral convictions" shared by all faiths. The treatment of women and gays and nonbelievers and believers in other faiths, the teachings about marriage and war and peace and the stewardship of the environment varies drastically from faith to faith and often within each faith from one denomination or sect to another. With Mormonism's clearly contentious history on the moral issues of race and marriage, Romney should have addressed the obvious problem with his thesis: in fact, all faiths do not share the same moral vision.

The second problem is that even teachings from religion about moral issues are not clearly moral even when they are right. For this, Kant is needed, and to short-circuit an endless journey into his 1788 seminal work, "Critique of Practical Reason," let me state the problem simply. Believing that something is moral just because it is taught in your sacred texts is not a moral argument because it takes reasons from revealed texts, and this subverts the tasks of human reason. Something is moral if and only if we can offer clear, accessible reasons for it. I believe that most often, reason supports the moral teachings of faith, but reason is the proof, not a scriptural citation. I may be, indeed I am, ready to believe that God's moral teachings in the Torah are revealed truth, but in the public square I must use other language and other proofs. For example, believing that a fetus has a right to life because it is human, genetically distinct from the mother, innocent and is therefore entitled to the protections of the 14th Amendment is a proper public argument. People can obviously disagree, but that debate is then carried on in the shared language of reason. Saying that the fetus has a right to life because of some text in Exodus or Job has no public purchase whatsoever for folks who believe that those texts are just old texts and not the living word of God. 

The solution for the problem of politics and faith is for religious people to come to the public debates with reasons that an atheist can understand. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to civil rights from the language of faith, but he spoke to America in the language of American values and unaided human reason. He believed that racial discrimination was a sin, but he condemned it as unjust and a violation of the Bill of Rights. This is why he won. Nobody ought to care how you came to an interest and concern about any of the great issues facing our country and our world. What people have a right to expect is that you can offer an argument about what we should do about them--an argument that need not end with "Amen."