Sex, Religion and Politics: How to Have a Civil Discussion at our Civic Table

Courtesy Reverend Miriam Bowlby, Cochrane Street United Church, St John’s NL, Canada

Professor Joe Goldblatt

As I sat before the microphone in the dimly lit radio station studio I was surprised when the business man I was debating said “Your views are un-American!”  I was deeply offended, hurt, and angry that because I had expressed my views regarding the need for government to close some duplicative and very costly tourism services that this man had branded me as un – American.

The recent debate regarding faith and public policy has reminded me that there is a reason why our parents often told us before a family dinner that we should refrain from discussing sex, politics or religion as each of these topics is likely to cause division and hurt feelings at a family gathering that was instead designed to promote warmth and love among all those seated at the table. 

These three topics now appear to dominate the national discussion in our country as our civic leaders on a daily basis argue their views regarding gender, our constitutional future, and now, the views on candidate’s own personal beliefs that are a result of their religious conviction.

This latest political uproar reminds me of the fears the American public had when a young U.S. Senator, a Catholic named John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy to become the youngest elected President of the United States.  During the early 1960’s an Irish Catholic in America was regularly a victim of discrimination despite their willingness to assimilate and serve their new country through becoming members of the police, fire service and politics.  In fact, within one generation of the great wave of immigration that resulted from Ireland’s potato famine, in 1885 Boston elected an Irish immigrant as their Mayor.

Boston politics had been dominated by Protestants until the election of Hugh O’Brien, an Irish immigrant and the first Irish Mayor of Boston.  Well spoken, mild – mannered, and a successful businessman, he defied the Yankee stereotypes of all Irishmen at that time and because of his well – regarded policies and successful civic achievements, he was re – elected four times. 

Therefore, when I hear the harsh rhetoric from some voters accusing a candidate for office of potentially not being fit for public service because of his or her religious beliefs I am puzzled by the seeming inability of voters to separate religious belief from public service and decisions that are related to the policies upon which candidates embrace to seek election.

I believe that it is important to identify and understand the values of our candidates and also to be able to discern when their personal values and beliefs are contrary to the future policies their voters wish to support. 

However, I do not believe that any individual who is standing for public office should automatically be disqualified because they have publicly stated their personal religious or faith beliefs.  The only logical reason for disqualifying this person for office should occur at the final poll when a vote is cast for the person whom the electorate believes will be the most effective leader and whose policies they wish to support.

We unfortunately live in a time when many voters choose personality over policy when selecting their future leaders.  We must be very careful not to allow ourselves to be persuaded by emotion and must instead seek reason as our guiding principles for who is best qualified to help lead the future of our country.   

Following the personal attack I received on the airwaves of that local radio station I was bombarded with further attacks through letters to the editor in the local newspaper with some mentioning my Jewish faith as a potential reason for my supposed un – American views.  I ignored each of these comments and over time they began to evaporate due to the lack of evidence to support any of these emotional reactions to my well researched recommendations for better government through careful scrutiny of how we spend the public purse.

I hope that the next time we all agree to sit down at our public fcivic table we will pause and consider that the person with whom we may disagree is entitled to their opinion, no matter how daft we consider it to be, and that we must embrace what is known as the Voltarian principle, “I may disagree with what you say.  However, I will defend to my death your right to say it.” 

The Washington Post newspaper in the USA adopted during the Presidency of Donald Trump their first ever official motto.  Earlier in 1897 the publisher of the New York Times adopted the motto of “All the news fit to print” in order to promote the impartiality of his publication.  The Washington Post in contrast chose the phrase “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to counter the “fake news” accusations coming from the Oval Office. 

Some critics believed that the Post motto was a wee bit dark as well, however, as the darkness of government propaganda descended upon the American democratic ideal even the harshest critic embraced and supported the phrase that now appears upon the masthead of the Washington Post.

As the public debate continues to carefully examine the policies, views, values and yes personal religious and faith beliefs of our candidates, it is increasingly important that we shine our light of reason into those dark places where slander and untruth seeks like a virus to grow and multiply. 

We must not disqualify candidates solely based upon their beliefs, rather we must examine their beliefs and where appropriate encourage and support them and when their beliefs do not support the policies that we believe are important for the future of our country, we must either persuade them to change their views or reject their candidacy whilst always remembering that we the people and our individual and collective beliefs are the ultimate arbiter of the future we desire for a just society.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and is the Chair of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association.  His views are his own. 

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