Religion and Politics:

How to Relate Jesus to Jefferson

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Cauthen. All rights reserved.

1. Religion and politics is not the same issue as church and state. 2. We must distinguish between religious faith and its political implications. 3. It is legitimate for citizens express the  social ideals and principles rooted in their religious faith in the political arena, but they should express them in language and values located in secular American history and traditions, especially those articulated in the founding documents.
Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 at a time when his Catholicism had raised questions about his full adherence to the separation of church and state,  John F. Kennedy said that  church-state issues were not the most important matters.  The real concerns were "the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms -- an America with too many slums, with too few schools."  These "are not religious issues -- for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers." He asserted that religion is a private matter. He went on to assure the Baptists in this way: 
Whatever issue may come before me as President -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures pressures or dictates.(1)
These statements may serve as a beginning for discussing the tricky issue of religion and politics as it relates to the separation of church and  state. To steal from Immanuel Kant,  we have here a "nest of dialectical difficulties." Let us analyze these assertions one by one.

1. Kennedy says hunger, health care, war, and the like are not religious issues because they "know no religious barriers." If he means that all great religions urge care and compassion for the needy, that is true. Perhaps he means  also that non-religious people may be in favor of feeding the hungry. In any case, that does not mean that they are "not religious issues." Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all think they are. Jesus certainly thought feeding the hungry was central to faith in God. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it clear that one's eternal destiny depends on just such things.

2. Kennedy further states that religion is "a private matter." If he means that religion is a matter of inward piety and love of God in the hearts of individual persons, that cannot be disputed. But that does not mean that trust in God has no essential connection with morality, social ethics, or politics.  Inward, private piety has ethical and social consequences. Individual religion has political implications. The prophets of Israel left no doubt about that.

3. Finally, Kennedy says that he will be guided by his own conscience and that he will not be dictated to by religious authorities. If he means that he will not let Catholic Bishops or the Pope or church dogma dictate his political choices, that is worthy and commendable. But we are entitled to ask where the content of his conscience comes from. If it is not in some significant way from his religion, then he has some explaining to do about what does inform his politics. Morality and social ethics rest on something, depend on some set of assumptions about right and wrong, good and evil. If his conscience is not guided at all by his religion, then we need to ask what kind of religion he has or is referring to. It does not sound like the Roman Catholic Christianity he professes to believe. Kennedy says he will be guided by what his conscience tells him is the "national interest." But is the national interest totally devoid of moral considerations? I hope not.

 Kennedy  wants to assert his unqualified  belief in the separation of church and state, but he gets tripped up by seeming to confuse this with religion and politics.  Given the setting, it may be that the main point he wanted to make here was his independence of church authorities and Catholic dogma in governing the country. Perhaps he feared that any mention of a connection between his religious faith and his moral commitments might intensify the problem he was trying to get out of the way. In this connection it is noteworthy that his speech nowhere mentions racial injustice as one of the important issues of the day -- astonishing since this was Texas in 1960. Nevertheless, the statements quoted show little understanding of the complex relation between faith, conscience, morality, and social ethics. They show no awareness that in biblical religion ones relation to God has consequences for how we treat other people, especially the weak, the outcasts, and the sick and hungry. In our time and society that necessarily has a political dimension, since we have to ask what we can do together as a nation to help the  helpless,  seek peace among nations, and promote justice for all. A purely private, inward piety that does not have social and political implications is not one that upon reflection Mr. Kennedy, not to mention the Pope and the Bishops of his church, would want to defend.

A more profound wrestling with the complex  issue of private religious faith and public policy is found in a speech by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in an address at the University of Notre Dame September 13, 1984.  He was dealing with the question as to whether he as a Catholic was bound  to adopt a position against abortion in accordance with the teachings of the church. His  answer was  that he was not necessarily bound to do so.

Our public morality, then – the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives – depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not – and should not – be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.

. . .  the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

“Yes,” we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But “no,” all religiously based values don’t have an a priori place in our public morality. The community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedom, and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it.(2)

1. Cuomo clearly recognizes that church and state is not the same problem as religion and politics.

2. He recognizes that religiously-based values  have a legitimate  place in publics political discourse, but they have no privileged status since we have to find a moral consensus in a pluralistic society that includes a variety of religious belief and unbelief.

3. Political policies must be judged by whether they are best for the society as a whole, whether they promote promote peace, justice, freedom, and equality for all, not by whether they have religious sanction in some specific religion or denomination.

3. Christians as citizens and as public officials have to make an attempt to balance the moral truths they hold against political realities. Pragmatic judgments must be made which may require a compromise of the personal morality they espouse is persons of faith.

Against the background of this analysis of speeches by Kennedy and Cuomo, I want to state a position that differs in no substantive way from that of the latter. I think Gov.Cuomo has it right, but I will frame it in terms of my own perspective. First, we need to distinguish between the issue of church and state and the problem of religion and politics.

Church and State

The problem of church and state has to do with institutions and the spheres of action that are appropriate for each. Here the concept of separation is valid. The government does not appoint bishops and pastors for the churches. Churches, meaning here all religious organizations, do not appoint presidents, governors, and judges. No religion can be favored over others or supported by taxes. The state has no role or authority in defining beliefs relating to God and worship. The free exercise of religion is to be guaranteed. The state is neutral between particular religions and permits citizens to believe or not believe in God and to engage or not engage in religious practices or belong to religious organizations according to the dictates of their conscience. There is no religious test for holding office. We are, in this sense, a secular nation. Thorny problems arise in two particular areas. 1. The first involves trying to steer between avoiding an establishment of religion and permitting its free exercise. Prayer in public schools and is among the most contentious.  2. A second range of problems arises when religious belief and practice conflict with secular law. Our courts are kept busy trying to find workable compromises least offensive to the Constitution and most in harmony with its fundamental intent and directives.

Complications exist, however, that confound any simple notion of religious neutrality or pure secularism in the national life. Incarnate in our history is a kind of "civil religion" (Robert Bellah)(3) that finds expression in our founding documents, our coins, speeches of presidents, the pledge of allegiance, and so on. This "religion of the Republic" (Sidney Mead)(4) cannot be defined precisely and has no official status, but it has been operative in the national life from the beginning. This "publick theology" (Benjamin Franklin) affirms the reality of God the Creator as the Author of certain human rights such as liberty and equality, gives a sacred dimension to national holidays such as the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, and defines a peculiar American duty and destiny under the Providence of God. These beliefs are independent of any particular historic religion or denomination, although they echo the sacred writings of Jews and Christians. The presence of "civil religion" in our national life does not justify the claim of some that we are a "Christian" nation. It is not grounds for promoting a "Christian" political agenda as such. On the other side some secular purists are offended by even this minimal creed and long for a common life utterly devoid of any reference to God. The courts have been busy recently trying to decide if the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Enough complexities and ambiguities of this sort abound to frustrate any effort to find some single or simple doctrine defining the relations between church and state or between religion and politics.

Religion and Politics

The problem of religion and politics defines another set of issues. Church and state deals with the relationship of institutions that are independent of each other. Religion and politics has to do with two spheres of activities in the life of the same persons. Citizens who belong to religious groups are also members of the secular society, and this dual association generates complications. Religious beliefs have moral and social implications, and it is appropriate for people of faith to express these through their activities as citizens in the political order. The fact that ethical convictions are rooted in religious faith does not disqualify them from the political realm. However, they do not have secular validity merely because they are thought by their exponents to be religiously authorized. They must be argued for in appropriate social and political terms in harmony with national values.

1. It is sometimes said that it is all right for religious people to have private beliefs about social and political issues, but it is  not appropriate for them to try to seek legislation that imposes them on everybody else. This simplistic notion fails to recognize that all attempts to get laws passed are efforts to impose the beliefs of some on everybody, since not many laws have universal consent. Moreover, it is legitimate for any group of people to try to get a law passed if they believe it will promote the common good and does not violate any Constitutional provision, e. g., separation of church and state. Whether they are successful in getting the coercive power of the state behind any policy depends on whether they have sufficient political power not on whether the legislation they seek is wise or good as judged by those who oppose it. In that sense, it is appropriate for Christians who are so inclined to get laws passed that make abortion illegal, but not because abortion is judged to be morally wrong by the specific religious doctrines held by them but because it would be a wise and good law in terms of the values resident in the cultural traditions of the nation as a secular society.

2. Every belief that citizens try to express politically is rooted in some philosophy or religion or some set of assumptions about society and its well-being and, if pressed far enough, about the ultimate nature of things. Ethical convictions do not come from out of nowhere.  Reason and conscience are informed by something that are foundational for both. This is one place where things can get confused by journalists and a lot of other people. It is apparently permissible for candidates or office holders to be persons of faith as long as it is a purely private matter between them and God. They may, of course, take positions on the issues of the day. But apparently what they must not do is to make an explicit connection between faith and policy. In one sense I agree in that believers should not ask society as a whole to adopt a policy merely because it is grounded in religion. But they can translate religiously-based social policies into  language and values consonant with American history and traditions.  Religiously-based convictions about society and morality are as legitimate as those that spring from non-religious philosophies. Hence, Christians, Muslims, or Jews may seek to get laws passed that are mandated by their religious convictions. Such laws are appropriate as long as they have a secular purpose and do not constitute an establishment of religion. Whether these laws are wise or worthy of enactment must be judged by whether they promote the common good as judged by national values not by the fact that they are or are not rooted in the religious faith of those who support them. A religious foundation is neither required not forbidden. Neither secular humanism nor religious faith is privileged in this regard.

3. Ideally and in principle, religious believers should not seek to get laws passed on religious grounds but because they express the values of the secular society as defined by its founding documents and traditions as they have come to be embedded in the common life. For example, if people of faith want to argue in the political arena for universal health coverage, e. g., they should do so not because the Bible or the Pope authorizes it or because God wills it but because it promotes "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Likewise, religious groups that seek to outlaw racial or gender discrimination should do so because it would be good for society as a whole on the basis of its own values not because it is part of the system of religious doctrines to which they adhere. This is notwithstanding the fact that they may be grounded in religious belief for some individuals and groups. This means there has to be enough common ground between religious values and the values of our common life as Americans to make this distinction workable. I believe this is true in significant measure. If religious social ideals and  moral principles have no counterpart in or cannot be translated into the language of  the ideals and moral principles of American society as judged by its founding documents and subsequent history, then Christians have no basis for insisting on their adoption unless they can persuade the secular society to embrace them in its own traditions and language.

4. A two-sided critique is required. Against religious people who explicitly support political policies on religious grounds peculiar to a particular denomination (the Bible, the Pope, church doctrine, and the like), we must insist that our government does not rest as such on the principles of  particular religions, denominations, or sects. In this sense, we are a secular state. Hence, the political and ethical implications of faith should be framed in terms of the values embodied in our national history and traditions. Against some secular zealots we must insist that religious people have as much right to express the social and ethical implications of their faith in political terms as they have to express their non-religious or atheist philosophies. The problem is that many religious people and secularists simply identify their outlook with "the American way" and are unable or unwilling to distinguish between an underlying orientation (religious faith or secular philosophy) and its social and political implications and expression. Once again the presence of "civil religion" in our history complicates the notion of an absolutely secular state. Even so, the "religion of the Republic" gives little specific ethical guidance beyond support of broadly-defined principles of justice, liberty, individual rights, equality, and the like. These ideals are so general and abstract that they can usually be invoked by parties on every side of issues when it comes to the specifics of social policy.

5. In practical terms, however, if believers actually convince other voters to support legislation because the Bible, the Pope, or church doctrine mandates it, not much can be done about it except to make an effort to persuade citizens there is a better way. We cannot determine or control the reasons why people vote or support the policies they do or prevent them from convincing others to do the same. In the voting booth citizens are a law unto themselves. They can vote for whatever or whoever they want for any reason that motivates them. It is pointless to demand purity of principle on this matter. Voters act out of prejudice, self-interest, racial identity, ignorance, and for all sorts of other good and bad reasons, including their religious beliefs, philosophical commitments, and a devotion to justice based on American principles. Let us be realists about the matter. But it is better when acting politically in the public arena for believers to translate religiously-based beliefs into the traditions, language, and values of the secular order. This is called for as a matter of principle. It is advisable pragmatically as well, since the tying of policy or voting explicitly to the tenets of a particular religion, denomination, or sect may repel large number of voters and hinder rather than further the cause.

6. Churches must determine on the basis of their polity and doctrine whether it is legitimate or wise for a church official, congregation, or denominational body to endorse a particular policy or candidate. But the state must determine whether partisan political activities engaged in officially by religious institutions jeopardize their tax exemption, since it then becomes a matter of church and state.

Working out the relations between church and state and between religion and politics requires all the wisdom we can summon. But it will help if we remember that they are not the same. In both cases, we should be prepared to deal with complexities, ambiguities, and overlapping realms in which practical wisdom must find workable principles to guide us that are as compatible with fundamental Constitutional imperatives as human reason can devise. Those who look for absolutely clear prescriptions requiring no delicate balancing acts or imprecise lines of demarcation between what is permissible and what is not are doomed to perpetual frustration. Or they may be tempted to resort to desperate efforts to find simplicity and purity of doctrine by suppressing legitimate but complicating elements in the total ensemble of historical principles and practices that govern  us.


1. John F. Kennedy, "Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association," September 12, 1960.

2. Mario Cuomo,
"Remarks delivered at Notre Dame University," September 13, 1984.

3. Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

4. Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: the Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

Many of the essays below that were originally on this site have been subsequently published. Since the copyright is now held by the publishers, I have deleted the whole article and replaced it with a brief summary. Information is provided in each instance regarding the published location of the complete article.

I invite comments, criticisms, refutations, suggestions, and corrections.

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If you want to take a break for some fun before you get to the serious stuff, the links below will take you to some short videos  of a humorous nature that I made. They poke good-natured fun at some funny aspects of religion, churches, theology, right-wing Protestant religion, and the mixture of right-wing religion and politics. They are designed purely for entertainment and laughter. I hope you enjoy them.  For  a list of my movies that play on Windows Media Player, see:  Essays

The best place to begin is with my home page, which will introduce the site and indicate its purpose:
Essays on Theology and Ethics
Presently, the following essays on theological and ethical topics are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Theology as Religious Belief
What I Believe
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
A Contemporary Christology
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Prescription Drugs and the Little Red Hen
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch
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Mother Goose Goes Electronic
Having a Web site is becoming a family enterprise. First to have a Page was my son.
Paul Cauthen
The latest entry is that of my son-in-law and daughter.
Ric Brown and Nancy Cauthen
These sites are very different, but both are creative, imaginative productions. They would welcome a visit.
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Created: Monday, January 26, 2004, 10:00AM. Last Updated: Friday, January 30, 2004, 11:30AM.