Separation of Church and State?

Here’s an interesting article about religious belief and politics from the Columbus Dispatch and Kudos to Senator Voinovich for taking a stand against slot machine gambling in the State of Ohio. He is correct in stating that it would lead towards horrible consequences for those who became addicted. I’m happy that he is drawing on his religious convictions to make the right decision here.

Faith shapes political views
Some lawmakers are openly religious, others are discreet
By Jim Siegel and Jonathan Riskind (who was married at Agudas Achim in 1987)

Striding near the Capitol during another day as one of what he calls God’s “chosen people” who serve in the U.S. Senate, George V. Voinovich was very clear about why he has devoted so much time to defeating a proposal that would allow slot-machine gambling in Ohio.

“I’m thinking about people, and I’m thinking about their immortal souls,” the Republican former governor said. “I’m worried about their temple and their spiritual life. They get involved in this, and before you know it they’ve divorced their wives. They’ve been bankrupt.”

Like Voinovich, state Rep. Bill Seitz considers himself strongly religious. But the Cincinnati Republican has been one of the legislature’s top supporters of expanded gambling in the BuckeyeState, stressing that Ohioans already are betting a lot in neighboring states. He knows his religious upbringing frowns on gambling and calls on him to do more to help the poor than the budget allows.

“There are times when what you have to do from a financial point of view is at odds with what your denomination tends to support,” said Seitz, a Presbyterian. “But there is a difference between the religious world and the secular world. In the religious world, we believe in miracles. In the secular world, we’re often having to choose from less than ideal choices.”

In a recent Dispatch survey of more than 100 state legislators, 98 percent said religion is at least “fairly important” in their lives, and more than three-fourths called it “very important.”

But just how religion shapes lawmakers’ views and, in turn, affects the policy decisions that affect millions of Ohioans can differ greatly. The issue has taken on added urgency in recent years as religion and politics have increasingly intertwined in Ohio.

Religious politicians strongly support abortion rights -and just as strongly oppose them. The same goes for embryonic stem-cell research, the death penalty and gay rights. They disagree on how best to help the poor, fund education and secure citizens.

“Does knowing that I’m a religious person tell you how I’m going to come out on an environmental issue?” or a tax issue? No, said Sen. Eric D. Fingerhut, a Shaker Heights Democrat and one of three Jewish members of the legislature. “Your faith gives you a framework. So even though there is clearly a Christian imperative and a Jewish imperative to feed the hungry, there’s also an imperative to help create jobs. Where you make that balance is what our role is.”

Voinovich holds the Roman Catholic beliefs instilled in him by his mother but also was deeply influenced by the Serbian Orthodox faith of his father. But he said those don’t always enter into specific political and public-policy stands. But his faith influenced his decision to enter politics and provides the underpinning for many of his decisions.

“I believe one way to show love of God is by loving other people,” Voinovich said. “So I got into this business because I thought it was a way I could make a difference.”

A Baylor University religion survey released last week found that people who believe in an authoritarian God -one who is highly involved in daily affairs, sometimes angry and capable of punishing the unfaithful -are more likely to want a government based on Christian values, with funding for faith-based organizations and bans on abortion and gay marriage.

On the other end, those who believe in a distant God -one who put the universe in motion but is not active in world affairs -strongly support embryonic stem-cell research and are more likely to oppose the death penalty and increased military spending.

Ohio Senate Minority Leader C.J. Prentiss said she gets her inspiration from the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

With that in mind, the Cleveland Democrat said she was outraged when majority Republicans cut Medicaid benefits for 25,000 poor parents last year.

Some say the state budget is a reflection of the morals of those who craft it.

“In reality, it’s a document that sets forth a sense of responsibility for the legislature to do all that it can to support the needs of Ohioans,” said Senate President Bill M. Harris, a Republican who attends Grace Brethren Church in Ashland. “You know you can’t fix and resolve all of the challenges.”

Other than a Bible on a desk, you won’t find evidence of religion around Harris’ office. “I don’t need a cross here, because I know Christ is here.” But the soft-spoken, retired Marine firmly believes that his faith in Jesus and eternal salvation shapes him and his desire to be an elected servant.

“I think that faith then causes me to be the type of person that Christ would want me to be,” he said. Harris, who has led Wednesday morning Bible study sessions on Capitol Square since 1995, highlights budget decisions to restore funding for the Bureau for Children with Medical Handicaps, to help children’s hospitals and restore some of the proposed Medicaid cuts.

Harris sees religion permeating many, if not all of his decisions. On tax reform: “If I was doing that just to benefit Bill Harris, my conscience would have a terrible time.” On gay rights: “I think the Bible is clear that homosexuality is not what Christ wants us to do.”

But Prentiss points to Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

“So when it comes to the gay issue, how dare we have an opinion about how somebody else does their life?” she said.

Religious differences were highlighted during a November 2005 Ohio Senate debate over a bill that would ban state funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Sen. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Urbana, spoke passionately about why lawmakers can’t be cavalier about protecting embryos, saying, “These are real-life human beings.”

But Fingerhut rose and just as passionately countered, “(That is) not a fact. It’s an article of faith.

“It happens that my faith teaches something completely different. It has taught that an embryo is a potential life. But the protection we give to potential life gives way to saving actual lives.”

The two candidates for U.S. Senate in Ohio this year hold very different stands on issues from abortion to taxes. But both say their faith, and a religion-based concern for social justice, shapes their approach.

In a recent article in Crisis Magazine entitled “The Conscience of a Catholic Politician,” GOP Sen. Mike DeWine cited Isaiah 58:10: “Help those in trouble. … Then your light will shine out from the darkness.”

That helps explain what DeWine calls his “moral obligation” to oppose abortion rights, promote foster care and adoption laws, and seek more aid for poverty and AIDS-stricken Haiti, which he has visited numerous times.

“I’ve learned throughout my career in public service that faith matters, that you cannot separate it from your work in the public arena,” DeWine wrote.

His Democratic challenger, Rep. Sherrod Brown of Avon, says Democrats shouldn’t shy away from talking about their faith. Brown noted during a July speech that he attended a Lutheran church every Sunday growing up in Mansfield and took away a message from both the New and Old Testaments about the importance of seeking social justice.

But Democrats often are reluctant to discuss how faith motivates their stands on issues, he said, citing an obligation to seek better pay for minimum-wage workers and fair-labor standards from America‘s trading partners.

Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-GenoaTownship, and his challenger, Democrat Bob Shamansky of Bexley, agree that their faith helps shape their outlook and value system. But neither spends much time discussing religion on the campaign trail.

Tiberi, a Catholic, says he prefers attending his own church on Sundays rather than campaigning in other churches.

“For me, (my religion and faith) is something important to me that I don’t talk about in my campaign. I don’t go around making speeches about it. It’s clear on my Web site I am active in my church.”

Shamansky, who is Jewish and belongs to three synagogues in central Ohio, voiced similar sentiments. He quoted the famous Rabbi Hillel in discussing how his religious upbringing conveyed a moral code “compatible with the American experience.” He said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do onto your neighbor.”

While Shamansky said that philosophy has “held up pretty well,” he added that he is not inclined as a politician to “advertise my religious practices or affiliations. … I am not going to prove I am holier than somebody else.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |