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‘Can people of faith hold public office?’: Transatlantic insights

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Believing in a faith, to the point that it impacts one’s views in any way, is increasingly seen as a disqualification for public office. Two recent events raise the possibility that this unofficial employment test is part of a larger, civilizational shift taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the UK last week, a firestorm erupted when Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told Piers Morgan that he believes in the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and abortion. (Tim Farron, a born again Christian, stepped down as leader of the UK’s Liberal Democratic Party earlier this year under duress, after making similar comments.)

Meanwhile in the United States last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein grilled a federal judicial nominee over her Catholic faith. The senator said she may not be able to vote for a candidate, because “the dogma lives loudly in you.”

Feinstein’s performance is somewhat ironic considering that her former colleague, California Democrat Barbara Boxer, attempted to browbeat Acton Institute President Fr. Robert Sirico last April for his allegedly insufficient adherence to Pope Francis’ (non-binding) opinions about how to respond to environmental concerns. At a minimum, the California delegation may wish to confer on the level of deference to the papal Magisterium it expects of Congressional witnesses.

The politicians’ comments stirred passionate, anti-Catholic rhetoric throughout society, notes European columnist Ed West, the deputy editor of The Catholic Herald. He chronicles the social reaction, and its cultural significance, in a new article for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic.

Despite recent anti-Catholic outbursts, the general public still prefers politicians to believe in God – and with good reason, he writes:

This fits in with Max Weber’s observation that people are much more likely to trust people with religion – even one totally different to theirs – to atheists. Etymologically “religion” comes from the Latin “to bind,” and religious belief has almost universally played a central part in maintaining high levels of trust within groups. Trust, or social capital, is a vital ingredient for any healthy society or political system. Even highly secular, liberal groups, such as Canadian students, display distrust for atheists, in one study rating them as trustworthy as rapists.

Studies show citizens think their leaders will behave in a more honorable fashion if they believe their stewardship of their public office will be scrutinized by a Higher Power. Religion is the chief arbiter and proponent of virtue. Those who truly believe in Judeo-Christian precepts will try to live according to its moral code, both in terms of its teachings on issues as well as in their personal conduct.

This may be precisely the catch-22 trapping Rees-Mogg, Farron, et. al. What if the people themselves decide they no longer wish to adhere to virtue?

“Is there no virtue among us?” asked James Madison at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788. “If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.”

No theoretical checks – no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.

Western society would benefit from a resurgence of adherence to traditional morals; in the minds of its leading historical figures, its very existence is predicated upon it.

West describes why he believes anti-religious fervor is paving the way for the transatlantic sphere to face “perhaps the biggest cultural transformation since the fourth century, when Christianity went from being a minority faith of city people to” the official religion of the Roman Empire.

You can read Ed West’s full essay here.

(Photo credit: Feinstein.senate.gov.)

The Church in Exile

The Church in Exile

The people of God throughout history have been a people of exile and diaspora. Whether under the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks or Romans, the people chosen by God have had to learn how to be a holy people in alien lands and under foreign rule. For much of its history, however, the Christian church lived with the sense of being at home in the world, with considerable influence and power. That age of Christendom is now over, and as Lee Beach demonstrates, this is something for which the church should be grateful. The "peace" of Christendom was a false one, and there is no comfortable normalcy to which we can or should return. Drawing on a close engagement with Old Testament and New Testament texts, The Church in Exile offers a biblical and practical theology for the church in a post-Christian age. Beach helps the people of God today to develop a hopeful and prophetic imagination, a theology responsive to its context, and an exilic identity marked by faithfulness to God's mission in the world.

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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