Mary Adamski View from
the Pew

Mary Adamski

Saturday, November 6, 2004

Local religion experts warn
against linking specific faith
to public policy

We got used to hearing God mentioned on the campaign trail.

Politicians clearly think claiming a connection with the Creator puts them in a good light.

But some local experts in religious studies say it can stifle open debate and distance a candidate from voters.

"The danger is when people get to think religion and values are synonymous and inseparable," said University of Hawaii religion professor David Panisnick. "It means you don't have to explain yourself, you do not have to develop positions. You simply adopt what your church teaches, or say this is in the Bible. That doesn't facilitate discussion at all.

"When someone says the Bible is against it so I don't have to explain myself, then anyone who wants to discuss the subject intelligently doesn't have values. So if I am against war but I am not a Christian, then I do not have a valid position.

"I think it is a dumbing down of the culture, which we don't need now," said Panisnick who teaches courses in Christianity and world religions which, he says, "gives me the privilege of teaching all three of the 'one true religion.'" He refers to the major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"When you step back, monotheism is the problem," said Panisnick. American politicians who equate faith and patriotism are on the same page as terrorists who justify killing in a holy war. "You have a political ideology that supports action with 'God is on my side.' Where crimes against humanity occur, there is monotheistic justification of the terror.

"I think it is irresponsible for politicians to tap into it," said the professor.

The Rev. Mike Young, pastor of the First Unitarian Church, agreed. "What I saw happening in the campaign was to equate faith with public policy decision and therefore to place yourself beyond criticism."

Young takes issue with politicians who use insider language in talking to the diverse elements of American and island culture. "Even within the boundaries of Christianity, that evangelical language is not generic Christian language."

He said that happened at the Oct. 30 Accountability Assembly, at which Faith Action for Community Equity traditionally presses candidates to promise to address the most basic societal needs such as traffic signals and safe school restrooms. This year, the interfaith advocacy group lobbied for a law that would require contractors who win government projects to pay a living wage.

"Mufi Hannemann committed to support a number of FACE issues," said Young. "We liked his social policies. But he didn't get it that as an interfaith group, we were Buddhists, Jews, Bahai, a lot more than Christians. It was a total lack of awareness."

Young said his Unitarian congregation, which is not bound by a specific creed, includes some "who do relate to much of traditional liberal Christian vocabulary. But a lot of them don't because a lot have had it shoved down their throat. I call it an acute case of theological indigestion."

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush talk with the Rev. Dr. Louis Leon after Oct. 17 services at Saint John's Church in Washington. His re-election and other Nov. 2 political outcomes have emphasized the nation's religious divide.

A candidate had better be ready to practice what he preaches, said the Rev. Dan Chun.

"If candidates share their faith or choose not to, either way it helps the average person get to know their leaders. It explains their thought processes. Or in some cases, it could point out their hypocrisy.

"If faith is ingrained in a person, it is bound to show in action and/or in words," said Chun, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu. "This would be true for Christians as well as those who follow other religions. When leaders share their faith, it gives me some insight into them.

"If a person believes God has asked him to do a certain thing, that doesn't bother me," said Chun. Whether a government leader is openly religious or not, "their actions must be judged by the fruits."

Chun, founder of Hawaiian Islands Ministries, said its annual four-day conference of nationally known Christian motivational speakers, preachers and musicians has grown each year and attracted more than 6,000 people last spring, "an indicator that people seeking God is on the rise."

Yet, the speechmaker who calls on a supreme being is not ringing the bell for Buddhists, who make up a sizable element of Hawaii's electorate.

"I suppose a person's character is made up of many aspects, and religion is an important part. I think it is good in that respect," said the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani, director of the Buddhist Promotion Society. "But to flaunt it, or to demean or debase others for having a less intense kind of belief, is not quite right.

"Our country seems to be divided by those who are very religious, and others who are more willing to accept the religiosity of others and not hold it against them.

"For our country, it is not a good thing to measure a person's qualification by religion. Nowadays it seems to be used as a kind of a weapon," said Fujitani.

"I thought Ed Case belittled Mike Gabbard by referring to his Hare Krishna background. Some of us asked him to stop," said the Buddhist bishop, a leader in interfaith activities here since the 1960s.

"I am not alarmed at the use of God," said Yoshitani, who credits his study of comparative religions at the University of Chicago with providing him insight into other faiths. The word represents "an expression of the ultimate reality. In our tradition, the ultimate is unnamable, inconceivable."

Americans may think their vision of a political pipeline to God is unique, but it's not, said Brigham Young University-Hawaii Professor Marcus Martins.

"What we have is civil religion, a concept in sociology, something that is seen in every culture with some religious foundation," said Martins, chairman of the Department of Religious Education and a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"When public figures invoke the name of God ... they are invoking the supernatural power that cuts across denominations. It is a national consciousness of religion. In America, we are very conscious about not allowing dominance to any single denomination.

"When George W. Bush says religion is an important part of his life, I think he is expressing the way he sees the nation's future ... not saying his denomination is going to shape his actions. Religiosity leads people to high values, moral values, and preservation of the common good. In most religions, values have to do with families, with the common good," said Martins.

"I think the American people tend to vote with their pockets, how is this candidate's ideas going to translate in tax burden or tax relief for me as a citizen," said the professor. "There is no question that the war in Iraq was in the forefront of voters' minds, much more than George Bush's religiosity."

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Religion Calendar

Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
Email her at madamski@starbulletin.com.



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