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Ask Hillary the God Question. And ask the rest of the Democratic candidates as well, including the openly irreligious Bernie Sanders. And the Republicans again, and make them answer it in depth. The question, of course, being the one Megyn Kelly asked the Republican candidates at their first debate: “if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.” The question should be much better phrased, and asked in different ways, but the nation would benefit were its candidates for high office forced to tell us what they think about the most basic things.
After the debate, a few pundits scoffed, and a lot more would have scoffed had they not been spending their column inches on Donald Trump. Those silly Republicans, banging on about God again. They think God’s on their side. They want to impose their religion on the rest of us. Yay for the separation of church and state! Boo for Fox News and the religious right!
But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the question was a good journalistic question. It tried to get the Republican candidates to say something useful about their religious commitments rather than let them give the politician’s usual pious but vague answer when asked any question about his fundamental beliefs.
As I wrote, ask a politician about his faith and you’ll get wind and blather. You know the sort of thing: Faith very important, wouldn’t be the man I am without it, learned it at my mother’s knee while eating her apple pie, affects everything I do, source of my concern for [fill in the blank], crucial for our country, etc. In other words: 1) I’m a man of faith, so you should like and trust me, but 2) but my faith doesn’t have much real content, so you shouldn’t be scared of me. You, the voter, are intended to feel about the way the politician holds his faith the way you’d feel about him holding a basket of puppies.
Asking the God Question, or if you want, the Question About Fundamentals, doesn’t let him get away with this. The question gets at the foundation on which he builds everything else he does. As G. K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy (over-stating the matter a bit in the case of landladies), “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.”
We need to know what someone who might become president believes about the most basic things. We think it important for a voter to know a politician’s record, but still more important to know his philosophy. And/or (for these purposes) theology. At present, we have to judge politicians as we’d have to judge an architect when we can see only the upper stories of his buildings. We can’t judge his work rightly — and decide with confidence whether to hire him — without seeing the foundations.
When a candidate says he wants to increase liberty — which every candidate on right and left says in some way — we would like to know what he thinks liberty is, and where it comes from, and what limits can be imposed on it and by whom, and most of all who it is that has this freedom and what that freedom’s for. Otherwise we get a muddle where a candidate can insist on individual freedom in choosing how to treat workers and deny it in choosing whether to carry a baby to birth, or the other way around, with no clear way given to distinguish the two. When a candidate isn’t bound by principles he’s stated in a way that publicly binds him, liberty gets defined not by any eternal, objective standards but by what his supporters want, or at best by his instinctive but usually defective feeling for what’s right and wrong.
And so, on the right, libertarian principles creep from business to abortion. If the individual is free, the individual is free. Keep government out of my factories, keep government out of my ovaries. On the left, belief in abortion “rights” becomes ever more libertarian while belief in government direction of the economy increases. The individual is free to control her body but the businessman is bound by a conception, someone else’s conception, of the greater good. The political dynamics differ, but the process of accommodation to power unrestrained by principle is the same.
To be fair to our candidates and the major media, I think they avoid these questions in part out of a real deference to America’s religious pluralism and a recognition of the dangers of religious division. To a small extent. Almost all of them have absorbed the secular mind and assume that religion — and philosophy too, though this they don’t see — has nothing to say about our common life, especially our political life, beyond the broadest affirmations of the most general virtues. It’s a source of liberty but not of our understanding of what liberty is.
If journalists actually asked the God Question, the Question About Fundamentals, and asked it in ways that forced the candidates to answer it, we would know them much better than we do and they will have said things that would bind them in office — to the extent a politician is ever to be bound. We will have some idea of the things they will not do, the things they will resist doing, the things they will try to do even when it’s politically harmful. Which is something we do not have.
But for now, may God bless America, whoever God is, as long as he doesn’t tell America anything.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.