The Role of Religion in Electoral Politics

Cheryl J. Sanders

Notwithstanding the very different positions taken by Mario Cuomo and Mark Souder with respect to the role of religion in politics, I experienced the October 2002 conference—from which this volume springs—as a congenial exchange of ideas rather than an argumentative debate.

Mario Cuomo's anecdotal, analytical approach, grounded in a penchant for natural law, lifts up the dual principles of individuality and community: "We need to love one another, to come together to create a good society, and to use that mutuality discretely in order to gain the benefits of community without sacrificing individual freedom and responsibility." Mark Souder, speaking from the vantage point of a dissenting conservative Christian, acknowledges two problems that have to be worked through, namely, the peaceful resolution of moral disputes and the protection of the rights of the religious sector, including personal beliefs and the rights of churches. These two views are not incompatible; indeed, love would require the peaceful resolution of moral disputes, and religious rights ought not be sacrificed in the pursuit of the good society.

Emergent from the conversation, however, are divergent views of religious responsibility. Cuomo's sense of religious responsibility finds validation in the ethical humanism that resonates for him among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others. On the other hand, religious responsibility for Souder signifies the moral agency of religious people, especially those identified as fundamentalists of various faiths, in keeping with his high regard for religious diversity and dissent: "A significant percentage of this country is Evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, or conservative Catholic, or conservative Lutheran, or Orthodox Jewish, or fundamentalist Muslim, and these people hold passionate views, views that are essential to their very being. These believers will not-and it is unfair to ask them to-check those beliefs at the public door. It is not going to happen."

In the course of his defense of the rights of religious conservatives giving moral voice in the public sphere, Souder mentions a number of issues in which these moral views come to prominence, such as homosexual marriage, pornography, abortion, and gambling. Same-sex marriage is the one issue from his list that will likely be raised in the upcoming presidential elections, drawing attention to the question of how faith informs one's understanding of public policy.

Let me say from the outset that as I reflect upon the debate I resonate with Cuomo's politics and with Souder's religion. Cuomo's notion of ethical humanism appeals to me as an ethicist teaching in a university-related divinity school because of its focus on the implementation of love and justice in community. Although this ethical humanism is rooted in a variety of religious traditions by way of natural law, it finds strength in its application to politics and in its articulation in the public sphere as humanism rather than theism. I am pastor of an urban congregation in Washington and an ordained minister of the Church of God, a holiness church with agency offices in Anderson, Indiana. Firmly entrenched in the distinctive dissenting posture of a people self-identified as in the world but not of it, I approve of Souder's refusal to either "check" his Christian beliefs at the "public door" or to "expel the Holy Spirit" from his life as a congressman, however far removed I may be from his conservative partisan politics.

According to a recent Pew Forum report, "Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality," survey data show that Democratic candidates for the presidency appear more likely to support same-sex marriages or civil unions than President George W. Bush and other Republican leaders, and opposition to these initiatives is much higher among Republican voters than Democratic voters.1 The data also indicate that Evangelical Christians are especially likely to reject same-sex marriage for religious reasons. Thus this issue has potential as a wedge issue for voters in the 2004 election.

To be more specific, the issue may motivate voters to make a political decision based upon religious grounds, that is, to vote for a particular candidate based on whether he or she holds positions deemed to be consistent with religious teachings. Persons of faith who object to same-sex unions are most likely to base their position on personal or denominational interpretations of biblical texts condemning homosexual relations. To the extent that their point of view is grounded in biblical faith, they are unlikely to be amenable to political appeals to justice and fairness as criteria for supporting the public normalization of same-sex unions. Faith may trump politics and philosophy in this public policy debate but not to the extent that this one issue becomes the sole measure of any one candidate's suitability for public office. I cannot imagine that many voters will base their final decision solely or primarily upon a particular candidate's view of same-sex unions, whether they are otherwise impressed or unmoved by that individual's expressions of religious faith.

What might be instructive for people of faith participating in the debate over same-sex marriage is to observe the broader perspective put forth by the prophet Ezekiel when commenting upon the sin of Sodom in comparison with the sins of Jerusalem: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49).

As significant as the matter of legalizing same-sex unions may be, from a biblical perspective it would seem undesirable for a nation to be preoccupied with such matters in a presidential election to the exclusion of weightier matters, such as disparities in wealth and income and the need for a coherent and comprehensive public policy response to poverty. While I affirm along with Mark Souder the right to vote my conscience with respect to social issues and political candidates, I maintain as my deeper conviction Mario Cuomo's reconciling vision of a people coming together in genuine mutuality to create a good society for the benefit of all, regardless of sexual orientation or income.

1. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality" (

Reprinted with the permission of Brookings Institution Press

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is director of International Studies and chair of of the Political Science Department at Adrian College, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C..

Cheryl Sanders

is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity, and Associate Pastor at the Third Street Church of God in Washington D.C..