Click Here North Star Writers Group
Syndicated Content.
Eric Baerren
Lucia de Vernai
Herman Cain
Dan Calabrese
Alan Hurwitz
Paul Ibrahim
David Karki
Llewellyn King
Nancy Morgan
Nathaniel Shockey
Stephen Silver
Candace Talmadge
Jessica Vozel
Feature Page
David J. Pollay - The Happiness Answer
Cindy Droog - The Working Mom
The Laughing Chef
Mike Ball - What I've Learned So Far
Bob Batz - Senior Moments
D.F. Krause - Business Ridiculous
Roger Mursick - Twisted Ironies
Eric Baerren
  Eric's Column Archive

July 23, 2007

Candidates’ Religion Always a Legitimate Issue


There was, last week, a rather interesting point raised in Michigan.


An activist for the progressive group said that pro-war Congressman Joe Knollenberg, a Republican from suburban Oakland County, should, like a “good Catholic boy,” atone for his sins in supporting the war during an anti-war protest in front of one of the congressman’s district offices.


The incident started when the office of Knollenberg, who is Catholic, was visited by a Catholic nun whose nephew is serving in Iraq. The nun, who is a constituent of the congressman’s, was at the office with other protestors against the war, and knocked on the door to see if she could get an audience with Knollenberg. A member of Knollenberg’s staff opened the door, and after seeing who it was, reportedly begged off, owing to an ongoing phone conversation.


The activist’s words immediately drew heat from Knollenberg’s re-election campaign staff (not his office staff) and the pro-war editorial page of the biggest paper serving his constituency – the Oakland Press. Both said that dragging religion into a political debate is wrong. “Knollenberg's religion has nothing to do with the debate in Iraq,” said a letter to the editor to a different paper.


It doesn’t? Why not?


The question posed to the congressman isn’t a religious one, but ultimately a public one. Why does Joe Knollenberg continue to support the war? From what personal influences is that drawn? If he calls himself a Catholic, how does he explain his departure from church positions on both Iraq (which the Pope condemned) and a same-sex marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution? How is it not reasonable to think that voters in his district who consider it important to strictly follow the dictates of Rome might want to know if someone representing them in the nation’s capital did not share their approach to a religion both call their own?


No serious adult thinks that religion plays no role in public policy, or that no one is ever elected based on the belief of shared spiritual convictions. Many important issues – ranging from war to the environment to the teaching of evolution in public schools – are deeply rooted in morality and spiritual belief. It is not unreasonable for people who wish to hold higher office to explain how personal belief and spirituality would influence public decision-making, any more than it’s unreasonable to ask how past business dealings might create potential conflicts of interest. And if when elected to office, he or she does something that raises questions about who we think this person is supposed to be, it is not unreasonable to ask for an explanation.


This is the case of Joe Knollenberg, a Catholic who supports a war that was itself condemned by the Pope. He might have an explanation that doesn’t involve indignation. He might not. But, the truth is that most Americans these days support leaving Iraq, and it is confounding to think that a politician actively opposed to that majority not be expected to provide a full accounting.


The issue cuts both ways. The number of office holders today guarantees that a handful of them are either atheists or agnostics.


In the past, newspaper columnists like Cal Thomas have suggested that atheists cannot possibly possess a moral code, because no such code is possible without belief in an inerrant Bible. It might be one of the silliest things ever written (and it is), because there are plenty of influences other than the Bible that can guide someone’s personal sense of morality. But, what’s also certain is that Thomas isn’t alone.


The only people who benefit from keeping these kinds of questions from the public sphere, in fact, are candidates and elected officials. Today, we typically elect people without knowing a thing about them except for what we can deduce from their carefully scripted campaign line. It’s how, in 2000, people thought George W. Bush, who was born and raised a patrician Yankee from one of America’s most powerfully connected political families, was a down-home Texas outsider who reluctantly left a career of clearing brush on his ranch to run for office to bring about reform.


The best place to ask these questions is during the campaign. Instead, we get constant updates on the day’s polls, and how they’re shaped by the truly momentous – how much a candidate pays for hair care. That leaves figuring out the mechanisms of an official’s decision-making process for when it is the least helpful – once things have gone terribly awry.


To offer feedback on this column, click here.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


Click here to talk to our writers and editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.


To e-mail feedback about this column, click here. If you enjoy this writer's work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry it.

This is Column # EB003. Request permission to publish here.