Monday, 17 October 2011

Religion for Office: Does the Public Have the Right to Know a Candidate's Religious Beliefs?

A modern liberal state is based on the notion of individual freedom. The state has no involvement with the personal beliefs of its citizens, religious or otherwise. A cornerstone of this disengagement has always been the seperation of Church and State, the idea that no religion will influence politics, that the state will remain neutral and never follow the whims of one belief system over another.
However, politics is a system comprised of individuals, and many of those individuals themselves hold deeply motivating religious beliefs. And so the question of how to treat religion in politics arises. Does the public have the right to know the religious beliefs of a political candidate? If the candidate wishes to keep his or her beliefs private, for whatever reason, does public interest or individual privacy prevail? And would it not in itself be discrimination to single out religion, given a liberal society in which an individual's private beliefs are a matter for themselves and no other?
Obviously, the public has no existing legal right to know a candidate's religion in New Zealand. The only requirement for candidacy is that the individual be a New Zealand citizen eligible to vote,1 and the privacy of an individual is protected by the Common Law. However, the public does have the legal right to “seek and receive” information without interference.2 Where should the line be drawn? It is unclear legally, but by examining the issue further it is clear that knowledge of a candidate's religious beliefs is vital to the democratic process.
What does it mean to vote for a political candidate? A vote is a loan of confidence. To vote for an individual running for public to office is an indication that you believe that candidate is best suited for the position. But by what criteria do we judge a candidate's suitability? For any significant political position, a wide range of candidates offer a variety of different policies, and we vote for those candidates who we believe will best represent us and our views.
However, it is not enough to vote on individual instances of policy. While a member of the public may agree with the policy examples raised by a candidate while campaigning, that does not mean that the candidate agrees with them on every key point. If, after voting for a candidate because of their stance on public transport, the politician then introduced an extremely controversial policy on road maintenance, the members of the public would feel that their vote had been somehow cheated. The candidate may not been dishonest about their stance towards road maintenance; they may simply had not mentioned it. However, the public voted for a candidate who they believed best represented their own views on the duties of that public office, and that candidate did not. It is not enough for the public to simply vote on individual policies (in this example, public transport), but to vote based on the candidate's underlying beliefs and motivations.
When it comes to religion, however, there arises a conflict with the liberal notion of public politics. In a multi-faith society, Rawls points out that it is impossible to reason or convince on religious grounds. Public officials must be “willing to govern their conduct by a principle by which they and others can reason in common,”3 as basing an argument or policy on religious beliefs makes it incomprehensible to those from other denominations. A public official, argue Rawls and later Audi,4 must not allow their own religious beliefs to enter into their policy, but rather speak only in universal, secular terms. Audi goes furthur than mere words, to state that “one should not advocate or promote... unless one is... motivated by adequate secular reason.”5
Without an understanding of a polician's motivating beliefs, the public cannot be sure that the candidate they vote for is truly the most representative. However, to involve those beliefs in public policy is to exclude members of the public who do not have those beliefs in common. Far better, more effective, Audi reasons, to argue against abortion on human rights ground than on religious authority.6 But while he may be correct in thinking that this is a more persuasive argument to a multi-faith society, does this mean that a political candidate should not be honest about his or her own motivations, regardless of how they try to convince others?
When the rev. Dr. King talks of making “justice a reality for all of God's children,”7 he is expressing, in the terms of his own faith, a message that is able to be understood by both Christians and others alike. He makes his religious motivations very clear; he considers himself to be an equal in God's eyes, if not the eyes of the law, of any other man. What would Audi say to Dr King? Should he talk in secular terms, to avoid ostracising those who do not share his faith?
Wolterstorff observes that for many religious individuals, it can seem almost impossible to 'secularise' their motivations.8 To do would even be disrespectful, for those religions who hold divine law as supreme. What furthur motivation is required? And then there are religions that include seemingly secular reasoning in their beliefs. What about the Buddhist who opposes abortion? Would it be secular or religious for them to argue that abortion is taking a life, when the First Precept of Buddhadharma forbids exactly that?9
Religion is a fundamental part of the lives of many. And for much of those people, religion is a key decision-making factor, unable to be seperated from 'secular life.' If a political candidate couches these beliefs in common, secular terminology, if we the public do not really understand his or her motivations, then we cannot be truly sure that the politician represents our own views on issues beyond those discussed. It is not enough to just agree on public transport, we must understand why the candidate presents the policies they do, so that we can be sure that they also share our views on other issues, such as road maintenance.
When voting, the public should be aware of a politician's motivating beliefs. It is de facto dishonesty for a politician to not make a vital part of his or her political beliefs known, forcing the public to vote uniformed. A 'pro-life' voter, for instance, would almost certain not vote for a candidate who has herself had an abortion. The candidate may not have misled the public in any way, the issue of abortion may simply never have come up, but the fact remains that if the voter had known of the candidate's abortion, they would not have voted for her, assuming her to be pro-choice and therefore unsuited (in their view) for the political office. If the voter is not aware that a candidate for political office not only condones, but has herself had, an abortion, then that cannot be called an informed, representative, democratic vote.
Likewise with religion. To reverse the example, if the voter is a member of the 'pro-choice' camp, and a candidate (perhaps due to Audi's discourse on secular reasoning in the public square) remains silent on their evangelical Christian religious beliefs, then that voter would feel cheated of their vote: had they known then they would not have supported that candidate. A vote in a democratic system should be informed, and religion should be no exception to that.
To make an informed decision on who to vote for, we the public must be aware of every motivating belief of a political candidate, religious or otherwise. However, this does not mean that religion should be singled out. Religion is a key decision-making factors in the lives of billions, but it is not alone. Religion can influence a politician's policies, yes, but so too can their medical history (as in the abortion example above), political ideologies, socio-economic background, or even something as simple as their relationship with road maintenance.
There is, of course, still the candidate's right to privacy to deal with. While it is true that under the Common Law every individual is entitled to privacy, a candidate must simply accept that some of this privacy must be sacrificed by their voluntary candidacy. To publicly proclaim that they are best suited for the political office, they invite public scrutiny of their qualifications, which, as we have seen, includes religion. In the case of A v B and C [2002], Lord Woolf CJ referenced the Council of Europe Resolution 1165 of 1998, enshrining in English Common Law (which New Zealand still largely follows the precedent of) that the private lifes of pubic figures may well be legitimately in the public interest for citizens and voters to be informed of.10 This is not to say that public figures should be forced to disclose confidential details about themselves like their religion, nor that they are fair game for media and public speculation. However, there is a legitimate public interest in being aware of a public candidate's private life, given that it may well influence their decisions in office.
If the public is to make an informed decision on who to vote for, then they have a right to know all of a candidate's motivating beliefs, with no special case made for religion. A politician is perfectly entitled to use secular language to argue a point (there is little point trying to convince a Hindu by quoting from the Qur'an, for instance), but we must understand why they say what they do. While some politicians may naturally be reluctant to disclose their motivations, for fear of alienating potential voters, that is in itself dishonest and undemocratic. The public has the right to know who they are voting for, not just how they speak in public. The religion of a political candidate, as a influence on their desicion-making in office, cannot be held private in a true democracy. When voting we distinguish between socialist and neoliberal, authoritarian and permissive. How could religion be an exception?
There is no legal obligation on a cadidate to disclose their religion, and nor should there be; that would itself be discriminatory. But for the proper operation of a secular democracy, candidates must be prepared to sacrifice some of their privacy and make details about themselves, including their religion, known to the general public.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Comlumbia University Press, 2005
Weithman, Paul J. 'The Seperation of Church and State : Some Questions for Professor Audi.' Philosophy & Public Affairs 20 no. 1 (1991), 52-65
Sweetman, Brendan. Why Politics Needs Religion : the place of religious arguments in the public square. Illinois: IVP Academic, 2006
Wolterstorff, N. ‘Why We Should Reject What Liberalism Tells Us About Speaking and Acting in Public for Religious Reasons.’ In Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, ed. Paul J. Weitham, 162-181. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997
King, the rev. Dr. Martin Luther jr. “I Have a Dream,” delivered 28 August 1963. (accessed 13 August, 2011)
New Zealand Electoral Act 1993 no. 87
Bill of Rights Act 1990 no. 109
A v B (a company) and C [2002] 2 All ER545 (CA)
1New Zealand Electoral Act 1993 no. 87, section 47 (1) : “...every person who is registered as an elector of an electoral district... is qualified to be a candidate and to be elected a member of Parliament
2Bill of Rights Act 1990 no. 109, section 14
3John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 49
4In Paul J. Weithman, “The Seperation of Church and State: Some Questions for Professor Audi,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 20 no. 1 (1991), 53
7The rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr., “I Have a Dream,” delivered 28 August 1963, (accessed 13 August, 2011)
8N. Wolterstorff, ‘Why We Should Reject What Liberalism Tells Us About Speaking and Acting in Public for Religious Reasons,’ in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, ed. Paul J. Weitham (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 183-4
9Buddhanet, “Buddhist Ethics,” (accessed August 13, 2011)
10A v B (a company) and C [2002] 2 All ER545 (CA), 555c-j, 563d

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