Civic leaders could use “person of faith” in a way that is inclusive and constructive
Why does the term “person of faith” feel like a poke in my side? I hear it coming from the mouths of political candidates, elected and appointed officials, and from the broader public advocating various and sundry public policy issues.
When I hear the term, I find myself asking: Who are these people who identify as persons of faith? And who are those that don’t fall within the speaker’s circle of faith? Why, if these people mean that they are believers in Christianity, why can’t they say plainly, “As a Christian I support such and such policy”?
I have come to suspect that choosing to use the term “person of faith” to support a policy position has roots deep in America’s political past. I was reminded of this recently when I pulled out my copy of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly referred to as The Jefferson Bible. It’s the original cut and paste job of all time. Jefferson simply cut out and saved the parts of the Bible he believed fit with the Jesus he revered as the greatest moral figure in history and threw out the rest of the New Testament.
Reading a 1989 edition by Beacon Press of Thomas Jefferson’s foray into religious writing, I found in the preface ample evidence of Jefferson’s abstaining from public reference to his religious faith, or lack of it. For example, from a letter of 31 May 1813 to the son of his recently deceased close friend Benjamin Rush, Jefferson explained that his correspondence with Rush over many years sometimes addressed “. . . the subject of religion, a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved.”
Records of Jefferson’s reference to religious belief are nearly non-existent before that letter in 1813 and he wanted things to remain that way. Jefferson did not write The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth until 1820, at the age of 77. Even so, he was braver than many of his contemporaries. Other public figures of this era commonly chose to make public their less-than-orthodox thoughts about faith and religion only after their death. And for good reason, in colonial America irreligious speech was dangerous legally, politically, and financially.
During that time it was smart to be labeled a “person of faith”—specifically Protestant Christian faith. Vestiges of colonial laws against blasphemy and for religious requirements for public office that existed in state charters and laws became unconstitutional with the First Amendment’s passage and the Supreme Court’s interpretations that followed.
After reading how and why Jefferson’s Bible came about, I found myself asking: Is it consistent with American civic values to place someone like Jefferson outside the circle of faith? What kind of faith is required to be a practicing American?
I concluded that, most fundamentally, Americans believe in democracy. They believe that political legitimacy and power come from the people themselves. At the time of the America’s birth, the framers did not put their faith in a king descended from a lineage chosen and sustained by a Divine Providence. Nor in a king who was also Supreme Head of the Church of England, the final authority in all things religious.
Does one believe in government of, by, and for the people? That’s the faith test that allows persons to declare themselves faithful to American democracy. In civic discourse, when we talk about everything that makes government work for the people, that’s the faith test that makes sense to me, the test that is proper to American values and morals.
I want to hear civic leaders--when they use the term “person of faith”--to let listeners know that the faith they are talking about is nothing less than faith in our common democratic values and institutions. Using language in this way widens the circle of faith to be ever more inclusive of different attitudes and practices regarding religion. Using “person of faith” to exclude those not sharing a religious creed is not a constructive way to inspire all Americans to work for our common good.
Dan Goetz is a founding member of the None of the Above Society.
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