Religion and politics

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(Host) Commentator Edith Hunter reflects on whether or not a candidate’s religion should be a factor in our decision about whom to support.

(Hunter) “Look out how you use proud words. When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back.” Carl Sandburg

Religion is a proud word. When I first studied philosphy sixty years ago the latest fad was semantics, the study of the meaning of words. The champions of the semantic movement insisted that every noun should clearly stand for something – or, as they put it, have an identifiable referent. If words are used without clear referents or meanings, no real communication is possible.

There is no problem with a word like table. The referent is clear. You can touch a table, see it, and pretty clearly define it. But for words like freedom, happiness, or religion, it is not easy to find or agree on the referents.

A candidate when asked what his or her religion is can answer in at least two basically different ways. One answer comes in the form of the familiar labels – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Mohammeden, Agnostic, and so forth.

But there is another way to answer the question: “What is your religion?” In this case the referent is the system of values exemplified in the way the person acts.

It has always filled me with wonder that people with very different religions in the first sense – belief systems – can end up with very similar religions in the second sense – patterns of behavior.

If you have ever participated in a protest march – for better race relations, for better housing, for peace – you can’t fail to notice the banners that the marchers are carrying: “Catholics For —“, “Unitarian Universalist For—“, “Jews for — “, “Athiests for —“, “Anarchists for —“, and so on.

The belief systems are very different; the shared actions are very similar.

This is also the case in efforts to achieve social justice. Those supporting a shelter for battered women come from all the different churches in town as well as those with no church affiliation. It is clear to me that very different religious belief systems have been translated into very similar religious value systems.

It is also true that those with the same belief systems can end up with very different value systems. Abolitionists and pro-slavery preachers preached from the same Bible, but delivered very different messages. Some Christians believe good ends can be achieved by war while other Christians with the same belief system believe no war is just.

So, it seems to me entirely valid when evaluating candidates in the coming election, to consider their religion in the second sense – the system of values that is reflected in their actions.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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