Ethics Religion and Politics


I was thinking the other day how does a religious politician make ethical decisions in office that protect his religious integrity and his democratic obligations.

Christian ethicists have said that ethical behaviour flows from religion, that without religion as the reason for ethical behaviour there is no real reason to be ethical. I’m not so sure that this is 100 % true, but in choosing why I behave as I “ought to” my reason for doing so is highly based on the presupposition that there is a God and the rational laws he has created are acceptable to me thus I have faith in those laws, but not always how they are interpreted.

As Ethics are based on what we ought to do, we need to choose the reason why we ought to do what we do. I believe we ought to do something because it is good either by Gods standards or by mans (aside from the objective vs subjective arguments on the nature of what is good), which to some degree puts me outside the definition of Christian ethics and to some degree outside any other non-theist system of ethics.

So I don’t necessarily criticise politicians for having faith based ethics or non-faith based ethics but I think they need to consider both their faith and other rationality when deciding what is good.

If you first assume that Christian ethics are rational then I believe you need to be able to defend that rationality. I feel that you must as a politician search out the rationality of your faith’s position before you put it forward as a legislation for all others to follow. If you are looking for the rationality behind what you are voting on this should just be part of the equation.

When you have decided on what we ought to do a democracy behoves you to put it to your constituents with your rational and let them decide to support it or not.

So what if you end up voting for something your faith does not agree with?

The answer is simple, you don’t, at this point you must resign as a politician.

That may sound like kind of a drastic choice, so how can you avoid such a dilemma? Go back to my first point, if you accept that God’s laws are rational then you must find the rationality and convince your constituents, and in the interim abstain from voting. If you still end up being required to vote against your faith because of your constituents then you have to choose to be part of the government or a non elected official and resign and lobby from without.

I guess it all boils down to being honest to your constituent about your faith before you are elected and during your time in office. Then if a conflict arrises be honest enough to step down.

Politics need to remain rational and democratic. That is why I believe politics need a degree of separation from faith which is not entirely democratic. As I pointed out above a politician can be a man of faith but his political career may be short because his obligation in politics is to support democracy first then faith. Since a man of faith can’t do this when he conflicts with his constituents he has no choice but to step down. This is not a problem, because if the church does it’s job and convinces the people of its ethical position the politician should never be in this conflicting position.

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5 thoughts on “Ethics Religion and Politics

  1. I’m not sure that I agree with you.

    First, an observation. The scenario reminds me of two of Jesus’ aphorisms:

    (1) “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”;

    (2) “No one can serve two masters”.

    In other words, the Christian politician finds himself serving two masters (God and the state; or God and the political party that got him elected) and at times those commitments will conflict with each other.

    Second, an argument in support of the opposite point of view.

    Politics involves a lot of “quid pro quo” arrangements. “I’ll support my fellow Cabinet ministers on that initiative in order to gain their support on this other initiative.”

    It might be possible to take a utilitarian line, and argue that the sum total of what I achieve as a politician is good, even though I am sometimes required to compromise with my own conscience.

    It depends on how idealistic you want to be. Pragmatists sometimes achieve much good where idealists have failed.

    If I were a politician, I could probably justify small compromises with my conscience on the grounds that it’s a group decision, not an individual one. But there would come a point, on an issue of grave moral significance, at which I would have to vote my conscience or resign — just as you argue.

  2. There is almost an argument that holds a Christian should not be a politician.

    Based on the fact that “No one can serve two masters”.

    Your point that;

    If I were a politician, I could probably justify small compromises with my conscience on the grounds that it’s a group decision, not an individual one. But there would come a point, on an issue of grave moral significance, at which I would have to vote my conscience or resign — just as you argue.

    The point is valid, however I would argue that compromises should not be made and neither should voting by conscience unless it is inline with the constituents of your riding. I might say that it is almost impossible for a man/woman of faith to be anything but an independent. Thus in our current system it would be unlikely that he/she would get elected. Just to clarify I think that resignation on grounds that you can’t support what your constituents desire is not entirely a bad thing. I think it would be the only wise option. If you vote against what your constituents desire, isn’t this a breech of trust (one that nonetheless happens everyday)?

    However on your point that;

    It might be possible to take a utilitarian line, and argue that the sum total of what I achieve as a politician is good, even though I am sometimes required to compromise with my own conscience.

    This sounds closer to something that I could accept but may not work if you take the pure Christian ethics approach which defines “oughtness” by Gods laws, something is good or right because Gods says so.

    Just when do we say that compromise destroys our personal integrity or the integrity of our beliefs?

    The only way I can see you might justify a compromise is on the basis of the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law. (thinking Gods laws not ours)

    Is it possible for the spirit of the law to be upheld even if the letter of the law appears to be conceded?

  3. There is an interesting article that relates to this by Dr. Otto J. Helwig of North Dakota State U. http://www.leaderu.com/offices/o_helweg/professional_ethics.html
    Helweg is the dean of Engineering and Architecture and the article relates more to Professional ethics than political ethics, but to a degree it applies. Though I don’t agree entirely with his thesis that If each individual does not have an existential reason for being ethical, all the codes in the world cannot produce ethical behaviour. This paper argues that a theistic presupposition is a sufficient, if not necessary, condition to supply the existential motivation. I can see that there is some truth in his argument that “a theistic presupposition is a sufficient, . . . condition to supply the existential motivation.” but as for all the codes in the world cannot produce ethical I am not so sure.

    That said I do not swallow his argument that atheists or non theists . . . do not have a rational basis for their motivation. It seems contradictory to part of his conclusion that states it is not necessary to agree that a theistic world view is the only foundation for ethical action or ethical motivation. But, if one concedes that the individual’s theological presuppositions can produce the existential motivation to “do what one ought,” then these presuppositions should at least be tolerated if not encouraged. The former being under defended in his paper and the later being closer to my point of view.

  4. Bill is correct. IMHO it is possible to be agnostic or atheistic while still behaving ethically. And conversely, one may have a theistic world view and still behave unethically – (but inconsistently).

    That said, it is probably more likely that most of the time the article mentioned by Bill rings true.

    Many political compromises have no “right or wrong” element, so compromise of itself is not the problem. Any ethical politician should be expected to abstain from voting against one’s conscience, regardless of the political consequences. So I don’t concur in the “must resign” scenario.

    Interesting topic, though.

  5. 49erdweet; But by abstaining don’t you short change your constituents?

    ps word verification on this one was anysrant appropriate eh?

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