July 23, 2007
Always a Legitimate Issue
There was, last
week, a rather interesting point raised in Michigan.
An activist for the
progressive group MoveOn.org 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.
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