Politics is complex. Christian faith is complex too. Intricate and often convoluted, each is rooted in trying to answer some of life’s most difficult and important questions. In March, during prime Presidential primary season, I talked to three Christians – one a Republican, another a Democrat, and a third an independent – about their faith, their politics, and how they relate the two.
The “Christian” Voter?
Thayer Wade, a junior concentrating in engineering from Massachusetts, follows politics “religiously.” Developing an interest early on in middle school, he has always enjoyed debating political issues with other people. Here at Harvard, he has been able to do exactly that. “I like having conversations – in the dining hall, before and after class, etc., on what’s going on in the world. I enjoy hearing other people’s thoughts, especially on the current election. It’s a blessing to be able to hear so many different and diverse stories here at Harvard and try to understand where people are coming from.”
For Thayer, many of his views stem from his family and faith. Growing up Roman Catholic, this faith has played a critical role in shaping every aspect of his life. “Both of my parents are Catholic. I was born Catholic, and I’ve been developing this faith my entire life. My faith is central to who I am, and I love talking about it and the beauty of Catholicism.”
With faith and family so central to his identity, it’s no wonder that each have been strong influences in Thayer’s politics. “My family has been a huge resource,” he says, “and I look to my faith for questions of morality – faith absolutely influences my thinking on the bigger questions.” Additionally, he points to his high school and college educators for growing his political interest and understanding. “As I’ve become more educated, I have developed an even deeper respect and admiration for the Founding Fathers of this country – those who wrote the constitution and the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers were absolutely brilliant.”
During his freshman seminar on ancient medieval political philosophy with Professor Harvey Mansfeld, Thayer studied Aquinas’s theory of law, which had a huge impact on him. “There are four types of law,” he explains refectively, “eternal law, divine law, natural law, and human law.” It is the interplay between these types of law which has provided Thayer’s framework for how government should legislate. “Human law has the pitfall that it is made by humans, who by their nature are fallen,” he explains. We therefore need divine law to correct the imperfections of human law. Due to divine law’s existence, it is not necessary for human law to cover every issue of morality. If we think about more minor personal shortcomings, it’s obvious that the law cannot correct every human shortcoming. Therefore, human law should strive only to make natural law applicable.”
Applying this to his personal considerations of political issues, Thayer expresses that his faith does guide his opinions, but often indirectly. “On issues related to morality, my faith is absolutely involved. But for more policy-type decisions (like those related to economics) – it’s less direct. I definitely consider my faith teachings on those issues, but there is not as direct a connection. The reason for this is in part a wariness of legislating morality.”
When looking at the issue of legislating morality, Katherine Culbertson, a sophomore Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator from Kansas, raises the same concern, asking, “Do I have the right to impose my beliefs on other people who do not believe the same way as I do? We, the USA, were founded on principles of many different freedoms, and people must be free to believe what they’d like. We can’t impose a set of beliefs that we see as right on everyone else.”
Having developed a strong interest in politics during the 2008 election, Katherine jovially admits that she may be obsessed with the current presidential election. “I take a certain sense of amusement from it …which is probably not a good thing,” she laughs. “But back in 2008, I saw how much hateful rhetoric there was and how misinformed people were and how people didn’t even care. At that point, I thought “‘We need to get people to vote and to care and to not have the system be so polarized.’” Recognizing a lack of political awareness among the general public, she stresses, “It’s important that everyone takes the opportunity to be involved in our nation’s government and politics.”
In thinking about how she has developed her own political beliefs, Katherine circles back to her faith. “I’m Catholic and I grew up Catholic. It didn’t really mean anything to me before coming to college, but freshman year I decided that if I’m going to be Catholic I need to have a reason for it. So I dug into my faith a bit more deeply and it really has become a large part of my life personally. It infuences many of the decisions I make – being a basis for my moral compass and a lens by which to see the world, which relates to politics. In a decent amount of ways, my politics are influenced by my faith, because everything is interconnected.”
Specifcally with regard to climate change, Katherine’s faith has had a direct impact on her political beliefs. “I’ve been influenced a lot by the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si. It helped me greatly in making the connection between environmental stewardship and social justice, as the more vulnerable in the world are the most negatively affected by climate change and environmental degradation in general.”
In fact, climate change is what initially caught Luke Roberts’ attention and spurred his interests in politics when he was 14 years old. A senior from Ohio, concentrating in both government and religion, Luke spends a lot of time thinking about faith and politics.
From a young age, faith has played a crucial role in Luke’s life. “My father was a minister and my faith in Jesus was always a very vibrant and real thing for me through the influence of my parents. I believe in the divinity of Jesus, and I am committed to his kingdom and what I believe his mission to be. My faith is the center of my identity, and everything I do, hopefully, is influenced and informed by my faith.”
Luke jokingly identifies himself as a “political animal.” More seriously, he elaborates, “I think it is healthy for human beings to engage in conversation about how to govern themselves. Everything has become polemicized and I think that at its root, politics should be about self-governance and what’s best for a community.”
Asked what has most strongly influenced his political views, Luke responds, “I hope it’s been Jesus. Now, parables are not written for us and they aren’t written in our language, but I think that Jesus offers a way of life and a way of seeing oneself within a broader context that can properly inform how politics should proceed in any society.” He references theologians Dietrich Bonhoefer and Stanley Hauerwas for helping to shape his political ideology, in addition to the book The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. “This book emphasizes Jesus’s concern for the social and political realm in addition to the spiritual realm. The rhetoric that says these are separate spheres isn’t all that helpful – Jesus very much cares about war and poverty and social concerns. He isn’t a ‘pie in the sky’ prophet but rather someone who is firmly rooted in his own context and concerned with the issues of his day, and those of our day.”
When thinking about a specific political issue, Luke says he always tries to ask himself, “Would Jesus be cool with this?” Yet, at the same time, like Thayer and Katherine, he acknowledges the difficulty inherent in this. “I realize I live in a pluralistic society so I can’t ascribe my beliefs and opinions to everyone else. But I always want to view any political question as a gospel question. For example, how would Jesus address questions of poverty in the 21st century? Or war or class conflict? Or racial injustice? Questions of religious freedom?”
Ultimately, Thayer, Katherine, and Luke must answer such questions and vote upon those answers by selecting a candidate who represents them. With an astounding 23 individuals vying for their respective party’s nomination at the start of this election cycle, how do Thayer, Katherine, and Luke choose who to vote for?
The Presidential Election
Katherine elaborates on this process. “When deciding who to vote for in an election,” she says, “Figure out what you believe is the right thing to do on each important governance issue, and then combine those perspectives together and vote for the person who ultimately aligns most closely with your perspective on government.”
For Katherine, this candidate is Hillary Clinton. “After much debate, I have decided to support Hillary Clinton. I identify as a Democrat, and looking at the platforms for both parties, the Democrats more accurately resemble my beliefs. But I really struggled with deciding who to support last fall. I really wanted to be involved and endorse a candidate sooner than later, but there wasn’t anyone whom I could identify with completely. Originally it was Martin O’Malley because I really appreciated how much he gave voice to concerns about climate change. Of course, there are so many policies on every platform, and every candidate has issues that you aren’t going to agree with. With Hillary, for example, I am against the death penalty and she is not. I also think abortion is immoral, and she doesn’t think that.”
However, Katherine asserts that ultimately “faith in itself has no drive to who I vote for. I vote for the person who has the same kind of outlook on the world and issues, and who I think would be the best in a governance position – not necessarily who would claim to have a similar faith as me. I actually find it frustrating that some people claim that their candidate has to have a faith close to their own instead of looking at how the candidate’s actions influence their policy. I don’t vote for someone because they are Catholic. I vote for them because their overall philosophy aligns with my view with what the world should be and because they are capable of leading our nation.”
Luke agrees. “It’s not very important that a candidate’s faith aligns with mine. While my politics are informed by my faith, I would vote for an atheist (despite our differences of spiritual and theological matters) if he had the same positions as me.”
For Luke, this candidate is Bernie Sanders – who is culturally Jewish. “I think he cares a lot about a lot of the things Jesus cares about – human dignity for every person and provision for the poor. And I’m supportive of many of his methods, such as single-payer health care system, taxation on wall street, regulating large pharma, etc.”
However, while Luke will support Bernie Sanders for President, he is hesitant to identify as a Democrat. “I am an Independent, because I don’t think any party fully can express my beliefs and opinions, and it would be dishonest of me to join the ranks.” After pausing, he alleges fatly, “Jesus wouldn’t have affiliated with any one party.”
While Luke and Katherine will be voting for the Democratic candidate come November, Thayer was thrilled with the selection of Republican candidates this cycle and will be supporting the Republican nominee for president, “regardless of who it is.”
Like Katherine, Thayer is comfortable identifying with a party. “I have always identified as a Republican. Many of the party positions align with my personal positions, and while I recognize the criticism of the two-party system, I think it’s a good system for getting things done – through your party and nationally.” He continues, “The beauty of the American system is that it is federalist — 50 states united by a federal government with specific limited powers laid out in the Constitution. Interestingly, federalism parallels the idea of subsidiarity promoted by the Catholic Church. Republicans today largely understand federalism better than today’s Democrats, who instead seem to view Washington as a central government with all but limitless power.”
Similar to Luke and Katherine, Thayer agrees that a candidate’s professed faith should not be a deciding factor when heading to the polls. Nodding his his head, he says, “It is deifnitely important that there is mutual respect and agreement on the bigger questions – not necessarily the religious ones, but the political ones. But ultimately,” he says, “I think it’s important the candidate understands that the American political system is meant to keep people free to be virtuous – to live the good life and not prevent them from doing so. The American system is one of ordered liberty, so I seek candidates that live a virtuous life and have a good understanding of the American system.”
In trying to choose between the Republican candidates, Thayer admits it has not been an easy decision to make. “The Republican party put forth a great field of seventeen candidates this year. On many of the moral positions that my faith informs, I more closely align with other candidates than the front runner,” he admits, frowning. “But at this point I think Trump will win the nomination and put himself in a good position to defeat Hillary in the fall.”
Regardless of political affiliation, it is evident Thayer, Katherine, and Luke each desire a government that will best serve the people of our nation – and their faith is what ultimately provides the foundation and justification for this desire. “When you believe that every human is made in the image and likeness of God,” says Thayer, “you think about people and treat them in a certain way. Understanding that people are made in the image and likeness of God absolutely influences political decisions.”
Luke elaborates further, “I think that the Bible is a book that speaks to God as the God of the oppressed. So when I do politics, I try to think from the perspective of the downtrodden, the neglected, the ostracized – I want that to be my framework from which I see the political realm. And I think of my faith as the center of my identity, so I would never hold a political opinion if I thought it was contrary to the teachings of Jesus or the will of God.”
Finally Katherine sums this up, asserting, “You shouldn’t be compartmentalizing your faith — your actions and decisions should definitely be influenced by your moral compass, which ultimately is related to your faith. Faith and life are inextricable, or ideally they should be.”
Together Thayer, Katherine, and Luke demonstrate that diverse political discourse in faith communities remains very much alive.
Brooke Dickens ’16 was a Neurobiology concentrator in Cabot House.