Sunday, November 13, 2005

Gov. Kaine, Politics, Faith, and Values

In a story about "What Democrats can learn from Kaine's Virginia victory," Newsweek quoted the governor-elect of Virginia as stating, ""We can't completely separate politics and faith . . . They rise from the same wellspring: the concern about the distance between what is and what ought to be."

I can't read this as anything other than a statement that a politician must be a person of faith -- that an atheist (such as myself), purely in virtue of our beliefs about God -- must be considered unfit for public office. If faith springs from "the concern about the distance between what is and what ought to be," we must assume that the person without faith has no "concern about the distance between what is and what ought to be."

I can write about how personally insulting this is. I turned down a lot of other opportunities so that I could go to college and study moral philosophy. I did so specifically because of my concern for the distance between what is and what ought to be. All of the writings that appear on my web site, my discussions in various forums and discussion groups, and this blog itself are motivated by this concern.

Yet, I have no "faith" that any God exists. So Kaine sees fit to say that I have no concern for the distance between what is and what ought to be.

Speaking more generally, we can imagine how a statement that Jews, blacks, or even Muslims lacked concern over the distance between what is and what ought to be would go over. Yet, a statement about a lack of concern between what is and what ought to be by those who are not people of faith is offered as a lesson to be learned.

The talk associated with Kaine’s victory is that the Democrats need to talk more about faith in order to make the people feel more comfortable with Democratic candidates. This allows them to reach the people on a more personal level.

Yet, this lesson would be much like saying that a candidate in a heavily racist region, where white people outnumber blacks by a safe margin, but are opposed to any type of equal treatment for blacks, needs to be white, and needs to speak openly about his own white pride, in order to give the white voters enough comfort to consider electing him into government. Perhaps, as a matter of political strategy, it may be necessary to do this where bigotry is so widely spread and so deep. However, this necessity hardly marks that society as a paradigm of moral virtue.

Dean's Alternative

In order to illustrate the problem with this statement, I would like to contrast it with statements that Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean made on "Meat the Press" on Sunday.

Tim Russert tried to press Dean on the fact that Democrats are trying to seem more pious and more Christian. At one point he asked, "Are the Democrats now trying to embrace Christ, trying to embrace moral values, because they see themselves on the wrong side of that issue?"

Dean answered, "Well, first of all there are a fair number of Jewish Democrats who I don't think are going to embrace Christ, but I think we all embrace the teachings of morality . . . . I think we all should speak about our values. I think one of the mistakes we made is to not understand that most Americans believe that moral values include making sure that kids don't go to bed hungry at night . . . make sure that everybody in America has health insurance . . . . We ought to talk about our values."

Dean could be interpreted as saying that the only two views worth considering were Jews and Christians, but I see no need for that interpretation. The point is to distinguish between religion and values. A candidate can speak about his or her own religious beliefs and the values that are mentioned within.

Yet, what matters is not the religion of the speakers, but the values he promotes. Does this person value a situation where children do not go to bed hungry? Does this person value a situation where everybody has health insurance? These are the questions that we need to answers to -- not, "Does this person follow Christ?"

I fully agree with these ideas. Political decisions reflect an attempt to realize certain values. In this very post, I am making statements about values. I am saying that what Governor Elect Kaine said was wrong -- morally wrong -- because he equated morality with faith and thereby denigrated a whole group of peaceful and honest citizens who do not share his beliefs. While Dean correctly asserted that there is nothing wrong with a person expressing his faith, though faith and values are separate, and it is a person's values we should consider, not his faith.

I have written repeatedly that the distinction between what the law is and what the law ought to be is a moral question. I have written repeatedly that I am concerned in this blog with what the law ought to be. If there is a gap between what the law is and what it ought to be, that the gap ought to be closed. We may condemn the politician politically and morally who does not act to close that gap.

On the issues that Dean mentioned, I will state that a starving child is clearly a bad state of affairs, and something that morally decent people will work to prevent. A sick person is clearly a bad state of affairs and something a moral person cannot turn his back on. We can, and should evaluate our political options based on their tendency to reduce the amount of starvation and sickness that people endure. In other words, these values should be reflected in our political decisions.

Religion vs. Values

Tim Russert continued to blur the line between religion and values when he said, "The Pew Research Foundation found in a poll of your strongest activists that 59% of those strong Dean activists seldom or never went to Church. Can the Democratic Party hold on to its secular base and still have its more prominent candidates talking about faith and religion?"

The answer, of course, is "Yes", again, as long as they take care not to blur the distinction between religion and values to the point that they feed the bigotry that suggests only religious people have values.

Dean actually answered the question by saying, "I am a Democrat because of my moral values, because I believe that we can't leave anybody behind, because I believe that what happened in New Orleans was appalling . . . ." Again, he was putting the emphasis on a person’s moral values, not on his religion, while Tim Russert was defending the view that religion is what matters, not moral values.

If we had a person whose values were, "Let the children starve, and spread sickness and plague throughout the land," we should worry about this person, and certainly see to it that he does not get elected into office. It does not matter whether he claims that his values are a matter of faith or not, they are poor values that deserve no representation in politics.

What Kaine Should Have Said

Here is the statement that Kaine should have made. “We can't completely separate politics and values. They rise from the same wellspring: the concern about the distance between what is and what ought to be."

That would be true. That would also allow for the possibility that there are people who do not share his religious faith, who nonetheless have good values.

And, once again, I assert that "should have said" is a moral statement. It passes a moral judgment against Kaine that his statement represented values that a morally virtuous person would not hold, and that a morally virtuous person would have selected different words. The problem is not with mixing politics with values. The problem is with politicians who have poor values.

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