The current issue of Cathedral Age, the magazine of Washington’s National Cathedral, has interviews with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney addressing the subject of faith and public life. The questions are not hard and the answers mostly anodyne. Here’s an example:
CA: How do you view the role of faith in public life?
President Obama: There are many ways to approach this question, but two clear aspects of the role of faith in public life come to mind immediately. First, faith has always provided a moral framework and vocabulary for this country to come to terms with its most pressing challenges. One of the great things about this nation is that it is a place where people from all walks of life can advocate on behalf of their faith and beliefs and be open about what drives and motivates them.
From slavery to the suffrage movement to civil rights, faith—and the moral obligations that derive from our faith—have always helped us to navigate some of our greatest moral challenges with a recognition that there’s something bigger than ourselves: we have obligations that extend beyond our own self-interest. We face big challenges in this country, and we’re coming to the point where we will decide if we’re truly in this together or if each individual ought just to fight for what serves them best. For me, and I think for many other Americans, faith tells us that there is something about this world that ties our interest to the welfare of a child who can’t get the health care they need, or a parent who can’t find work after the plant shut down, or a family going hungry.
Second, faith motivates people to do incredibly compassionate and good work that helps our nation thrive. Now, I’ve been familiar with this for a long time. One of my first jobs was as a community organizer where I was funded by a Catholic Church grant to help families on the South Side of Chicago who were struggling after the local steel plant closed. But I must say this has become even more real to me during my time as president. Through the letters I’ve read from individuals whose faith led them to serve in Joplin or Colorado Springs in the aftermath of a natural disaster, and the work of my faith-based office (which has done incredible work to strengthen partnerships between the federal government and faith-based non-profits to serve those in need), it is more apparent to me now than ever how integral faith is as a motivating factor for so much of what keeps our country moving forward.
Governor Romney: We should acknowledge the Creator, as did the Founders—in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.
It’s hard, on this level of generality, to disagree with either answer. Surely, for example, many of us could agree with the President that “faith has always provided a moral framework and vocabulary for this country to come to terms with its most pressing challenges.” To be sure, we’d likely disagree about how that faith leads us to particular policy proposals, not to mention a general conception of the role of government in dealing with those challenges. Thus, for example, Mitt Romney cites Matthew 25:35-36 as his favorite passage from Scripture, but surely doesn’t take it to mean what someone like Jim Wallis would take it to mean. For Romney, it’s in the first instance a call to personal charity. For adherents of the Social Gospel, it’s a call to the creation of an effective welfare state.
Of course, if I wanted to picky and prickly, I could raise the following question about the President’s very wordy answer. Once again, the President:
From slavery to the suffrage movement to civil rights, faith—and the moral obligations that derive from our faith—have always helped us to navigate some of our greatest moral challenges with a recognition that there’s something bigger than ourselves: we have obligations that extend beyond our own self-interest.
How, I might ask the President, does someone who lacks faith come to such a recognition and to such obligations? Are we left with contingent communities of sympathy, identity, and solidarity that have to be constructed by those who happen to have power and influence (which communities, by the way, often exclude as well as include)? Or do we appeal to self-interest rightly understood, itself on the one hand not altogether rational or on the other not altogether persuasive?
If I wanted to be difficult, there are other questions I could ask about this and other elements of the interview, but (for the moment) I’ll leave it at that.