Posted by: Randy Allgaier | June 10, 2007

Morality and Ethics Should Shape Our Political Dialogue, Not Faith

I was very interested in Soledad O’Brien’s interviews on faith with the three top running Democratic Presidential candidates and while, as in all things “television”, there was not enough time to really dive into the thoughts of Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards, I was very impressed by the thoughtfulness of these interviews.

There were only a few moments where O’Brien asked a question typical of the inanity of most television interviews of this nature with the most obvious being when she asked Mr. Edwards what the biggest sin he ever committed in his life might be. I think she was hoping for one of those “I lusted in my heart” moments that came from President Jimmy Carter’s interview with “Playboy” magazine.

What impressed me the most was that all three candidates talked about how morality is key and while their moral compass might have been developed by their faith, the issue as it relates to public policy is about making moral choices not about some faith litmus test.

Mrs. Clinton said that she is from a tradition that is wary of those folks who wear their faith on their sleeve reminding the audience of the Pharisees.  I share the same suspicion. Those who wear their faith on their sleeve often use their faith as a bludgeon, a sword, a trump card in the arsenal of divisive politics and a rationale for prejudice and hatred of all things that do not adhere to their brand of faith and their narrow insecure view of the world.

Bear with me as I indulge in a little research on the word “faith” and some of the arguments that have ensued from that one word. I believe that this academic diversion is important in order to proceed with the issue about moral issues being more important than issues of “faith’ in our political debates.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the etymology of the word faith is as follows: It was first used in English c.1250 to mean “duty of fulfilling one’s trust,” emenating from the Old French feid, and from the Latin fides “trust, belief,” which has the root fidere “to trust,” arising from the “Proto Indo- European” base bhidh which is “command, persuade, trust” and ultimately comes from the Sanskrit words bodhati meaning “to awaken” and “buddhah” meaning “enlightened” and began to be used as a way to describe religion in the 14th century Christian Europe.

Therefore at its very root the word “faith” comes from a sense of “God”. The definition of the word “faith” in today’s parlance according to Merriam Webster is “2 a(1) [the] belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs.”

The etymology is intriguing and raises an epistemological argument as to the validity of faith since the word’s origin is so ancient and basic to our collective psyche about our place in the cosmos. On one extreme is logical positivism, which denies the validity of any beliefs held by faith; on the other extreme is fideism, which holds that true belief can only arise from faith, because reason and evidence cannot lead to truth. Some foundationalists, such as St. Augustine of Hippo and Alvin Plantinga, hold that all of our beliefs rest ultimately on beliefs accepted by faith. Others, such as C.S. Lewis, hold that Faith is merely the virtue by which we hold to our reasoned ideas, despite moods to the contrary.

A certain number of religious rationalists, as well as non-religious people, criticize implicit faith as being irrational, and see faith as ignorance of reality: a strong belief in something with no evidence. In this view, belief should be restricted to what is directly supportable by logic or scientific evidence. Some say that belief in scientific evidence is based on faith in positivism. Others claim that faith is perfectly compatible with and does not necessarily contradict reason, “faith” meaning a belief in the existence of a deity.

Many Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that there is adequate historical evidence of their God’s existence and interaction with human beings. As such, they may believe that there is no need for “faith” in God in the sense of belief against or despite evidence; rather, they hold that evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that their God probably exists or certainly exists.

No historical evidence has managed to convince the entirety of the community of historians on earth that any one religion is true. For people in this category, “faith” in a God simply means “belief that one has knowledge of [any particular] God[s]”. It is logically impossible that all these different religions with their mutually contradictory beliefs can simultaneously be objectively true.

Therefore, most historians with religious beliefs hold others to be “false”, or essentially wrong. This is a standard tenet of most religions as well, though there are exceptions. An example of this is some forms of Hinduism, which hold the view that the several different faiths are just aspects of the ultimate truth that the several religions have difficulty describing or understanding. They see the different religions as just different paths to the same goal. This does not explain away all logical contradictions between faiths but these traditions say that all seeming contradictions will be understood once a person has an experience of the Hindu concept of moksha.

With all that backgroud- it seems to me that “faith” means a lot of different things and often times does not mean “trust” or “enlightenment” or even “belief in God” but rather religion and accepting that one religion has the one truth since the Hindu concept of moksha doesn’t seem to have gained a lot of steam in other religion’s of the world.

So- I ask the question: What does faith have to do with politics? Do I care what belief someone has? Do I care that they pray or that they believe in God, a higher power, or work towards self enligthenment?

The Germans in Nazi Germany seemed to care alot about someone’s non-Christian “faith” aka “religion” intensely- not a road I wish to follow.

Others like Reverends the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson confuse faith and religion with dogma in order to wrap hatred and prejduice in a blanket of fear that is a highly effective tactic of mass manipulation and power mongering. It’s not so different than the hatred of Islamic fundamentalists is it? Some Christian fundamentalism seems as hate filled as Islamic fundamentalism- just without the overt violence.

Bottom line- faith through history – etymological and epistemological- does not guarantee making good moral choices if you believe that morality means respect and a strong sense of ethics and that ethics means the respect of  and equality of all life.  Faith does not mean that someone will make good moral choices or that they have strong ethical standards. Having faith means is that someone believes in God or “something” and/or follows the dogma of a religion- nothing more.

It is those moral and ethical issues that are important in the decision making of a leader- not their faith or even how they became a person who has good moral or ethical standards.  They may have a strong sense of ethics that comes from their faith, but being a “person of faith” does not implicitly lead to making those good choices.   What matters is that they make good choices.

A sense of human dignity and equality is the ethical standard that has been the hallmark for our political process in the United States since our founding (remember the Declaration of Independence?). While God has been evoked since our founding as well, it is the ethics of human dignity that forged our great nation at the beginning not religion or faith.  Striving for human dignity and equality is an ethical issue not an article of faith.

Talking faith and God is easy- it is uncomplicated and by the very nature of “faith” cuts off discussion and debate. How can you debate something that has no objective proof”? But you can debate policy based on ethics.

Most importantly, you can hold people to account on ethics, but you cannot hold them accountable for their faith; per the arguments of the “faithful”- only God can do that.


  1. excellent commentary, thanks.

    You react to the superficialities of faith, which pass for real faith in America, with the same concern as me, but more eloquently and in greater depth. I’ll be back..

  2. […] The Alligator: Morality and Ethics Should Shape Our Political Dialogue, Not Faith […]

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