TO BE SURE, I am not a political scientist or theologian; nor do I study religion’s role in politics with an academic’s eye. But as a public official, a Democrat, and a Catholic, I do experience it firsthand on an almost daily basis. And so this article is not to be any kind of final analysis but rather something closer to a work in progress: I intend to offer a snapshot of my own faith and its effect on my work as a policy maker today. In the process, I hope to provide a practitioner’s opinion on the role that religion ought to play in American democracy.
Religion is an integral part of our national discourse, and there is no doubt that it has played a key role in the last three presidential elections. It is clear that the perspectives and influence of religious communities weigh heavily on our policy debates, whether the issue is poverty, war, the environment, stem-cell research, or reproductive health. Often, this can be a constructive thing: these trends, in no small part, moved Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, including me, to draft a Statement of Principles declaring that our faith does have bearing on the broad range of issues that we champion in the Congress and in our communities. It also moved me to work with my colleague, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, to draft legislation that seeks common ground on the sensitive issue of abortion.
Other recent developments at the intersection of religion and public life, however, give me reason for concern: legitimate scientific conclusions manipulated toward ideological ends; religiously affiliated organizations allowed to discriminate with taxpayer dollars; and a communion controversy that flared up in 2004 and continues to threaten every Catholic politician’s ability to participate in our faith’s most sacred ritual. Indeed, too often religious faith has been used cynically as a political weapon and an election-day wedge. Our challenge today—in the Congress, in academia, and even for those in the Church’s hierarchy—is to respond by presenting a better alternative.
As a result, I believe that religious faith can and should inform the work of our democracy. It can and should restore government’s moral role in society—as long as it respects and promotes the dignity of every human person, calls us to work for the common good, unifies us into a community, and works within the confines of our Constitution and a pluralistic society.