Article Of Faith And National Interest: One And The Same?

Alas, it is necessary to return once again to the question of religion’s role — or if not religion, then the nature and role of core values, of “articles of faith” — in the public, political sphere. What follows will make more sense if you will take a look (or a new look, if you’re a loyal long-time reader) at what I’ve already written on this matter here, here, and here.

This necessity is prompted by one of Kerry’s responses in the last debate that has received some attention, but not enough, as well as some excellent recent commentary on his remarkable return-terrorism-to-a-nuisance interview in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday, especially the columns by David Brooks and Hugo Restall (Wall St Journal, Oct. 11,p. A19).

Brooks nicely elucidates the difference between Bush and Kerry as “a conflict of visions,” with Kerry’s vision based on a fundamental commitment to alliances and multilateral co-operation. Keep this in mind. Restall seems to be speaking about something else (but I will argue that these issue are closely related) when he emphasizes Kerry’s answers in the second debate to questions about abortion and stem cell research:

In both cases, he pushed moral considerations to the background and favored using the government’s taxation powers to support practices that are deeply controversial and repugnant to many Americans. Moreover, in the case of abortion he suggested that he himself believes in the sanctity of life, even though he favors using public resources to promote abortion.

Here’s what Kerry said in what I agree with Restall is a very revealing response:

First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins. I’m a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war, leads me today.

But I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith…

Unless I’m mistaken, Kerry is saying here that he agrees with the teachings of the Catholic Church — and the belief of the questioner — about when life begins, that in fact that shared belief is an “article of faith” with him. Nevertheless, like Mario Cuomo and Joseph Califano whom I discussed in the posts cited above, he points with pride to his refusal to let this “article of faith” influence his stance on abortion and presumably other issues because we live in a pluralistic society that comprises many faiths. Kerry, in fact, seems even less troubled by the conflict between his personal “article of faith” and his political behavior than either Cuomo or even Califano, neither of whom, after all, were as identified with NARAL and pro-choice politics as Kerry. Indeed, one of the things that’s so unsettling about Kerry, at least to his critics and I suspect even to some of his supporters, is that he is such an active and avid supporter of policies that run directly counter to what he says is an “article of faith” with him.

Although Kerry’s support for abortion despite his “article of faith” about life beginning at conception has been relatively consistent, it nevertheless reinforces his reputation as an empty suit with no core principles. This may not be altogether fair, since we can assume that Kerry agrees with what Cuomo did after all present as a principled argument — that arguments based on faith or even morality have no place in a pluralistic society unless they are widely shared.

And this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, back to the David Brooks column today about “vision” linked above. Here’s one of his comments about Kerry’s guiding vision:

When Kerry talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about alliances and multilateral cooperation….

The optimism built into this vision is that nations will sometimes be able to set aside their rivalries and narrow self-interests and work cooperatively to thwart the sorts of global threats posed by Saddam Hussein, or genocides like the one in Sudan. Kerryesque liberals are concerned by the possibility that some nations will go off and behave individualistically or, as they say, unilaterally.

The more I listen to Kerry complain about Bush’s “arrogance” and “unilateralism” and “insensitivity” to our allies etc., the more it seems to me that in some deep sense he regards the place and role of American national interests in the world community as analogous to the place and role of his “article of faith” in our own pluralistic, multicultural country. Insisting on one’s own values/interests is arrogant, unilateral, insensitive, whether at home or abroad. Just as he thinks it inappropriate for him to impose, even through legislation that must command something approaching majority support, his own values on people who don’t share them, he similarly regards it as inappropriate for the United States to act on its own values and interests in a world where not only our enemies but many of our allies disapprove. His guiding principle, in short, is not a principle but almost an ethic of not acting on one’s principles at home or interests abroad.

George Bush’s vision of the proper role of both articles of personal faith and the national interest is quite different.

Say What? (12)

  1. Gary Baker October 13, 2004 at 6:30 am | | Reply

    As nearly as I can tell, Mr. Kerry has been consistent with regards to abortion. The consistency breaks down, however, in light of his support for other issues. In at least one broadcast, he used the verse “Honor your father and mother…” to highlight his support for social security as it exists. You can debate a good deal about whether the current system provides any “honor,” but the point is that Mr. Kerry seems perfectly willing to legislate an “article of faith” that is popular with his base.

  2. 76406 October 13, 2004 at 8:05 am | | Reply

    Kerry craaaaaves approval, but ONLY from those he considers important. We need only look at his plan for the response to slaughtered citizens by the greatest power on earth- truly a 911 plan-

    “I’ll get help!”

    Or discussed more elegantly-

    “And although we cannot run an experiment to look into the alternate futures to glean the best result, to determine the relative benefits of being nice or being mean

  3. Ralph October 13, 2004 at 8:16 am | | Reply

    Sounds like simple peer pressure to me – “I won’t do anythning that my peers, as a group, don’t agree with”. How can this man consider himself to be a “leader”?

  4. ELC October 13, 2004 at 2:20 pm | | Reply

    Nice insight.

    “Indeed, one of the things that’s so unsettling about Kerry, at least to his critics and I suspect even to some of his supporters, is that he is such an active and avid supporter of policies that run directly counter to what he says is an ‘article of faith’ with him.” I think when Kerry says he agrees with the teachings of the Catholic Church concerning life issues, I think he is plainly and simply lying.

  5. mj October 13, 2004 at 3:27 pm | | Reply

    I think you’re overreading it. Kerry wants to use the issue to appeal to those he can win, while at the same time minimizing his distance from those who oppose his position. Minimizing this difference may enable him to win some voeters who don’t like his stance on this issue but prefer him on other issues. Noone pro-choice is going to vote for Bush because Kerry is insufficiently vehement on abortion rights, so Kerry can move right as long as he doesn’t deny choice itself. Maybe he thinks there are a number of pro-life, anti-war types in Pennsylvania and Ohio he can convince to put the war as a higher priority.

    Perhaps you agree and are merely showing the reasoning which must be true to accept his position in principle?

  6. John Rosenberg October 13, 2004 at 4:59 pm | | Reply

    mj – There’s no tension between saying that Kerry’s motives are political (which is how I read your comment) and my saying that his argument against insisting on his “article of faith” at home because it would offend some in our pluralistic society is analogous to his argument against insisting on American interests abroad because it would offend some in the world community.

  7. mj October 13, 2004 at 7:33 pm | | Reply


    I’m not arguing that the examples you used aren’t analogous. I’m saying the idea that Kerry truly believes his position is far less likely than that he simply adopted it for political expediency. There is nothing absolutely contradictory about the two positions, but Kerry’s position on abortion takes such a tortuously twisted logical path I find it extremely unlikely.

    It doesn’t make sense to agree that aborting is killing a person while denying that anything should be done about it. To continue your domestic to international analogy, what do you think Kerry’s position is about the Islamic clerics supporting the murder of Jews? Do you suppose he would come out and say he is personally against it, but because it would be arrogant for the US to push the matter he’ll accept it? I don’t have a great opinion of Kerry but I don’t believe he would agree with this.

    So there would be some things he would be willing to stand up against. So if he believes abortion is killing innocent children how can this be less of an issue to confront?

    I’m pro-choice because I don’t know whether life begins at conception or not, nor does there seem to be a non-politicized scientific consensus for me to trust. Pro-choice makes sense for people who believe it isn’t killing, or for people like me who admit they don’t know. But it makes no sense to believe that abortion is killing and remain pro-choice.

    I think it’s much more likely that he doesn’t believe life begins at conception at all. His comment is the sort of justification used by someone who is searching for a reason to deny the obvious.

  8. John Rosenberg October 13, 2004 at 8:29 pm | | Reply

    I dunno, mj. You’ll certainly not hear an argument from me that Kerry actually believes much (most?) of what he says. On this you may well be right. But … as I was sitting here typing this I was listening in the background to Chris Mathews interview Gov. Granholm of Michigan. He asked her if we were right or wrong to go into Iraq. After beginning with the required Kerry line about it being wrong to do it “the wrong way” etc., she said in effect, “Who are we to impose our system on others. What gives us the right to think we should be the model for every place. We’re a great country, but…. ” It was just like what Kerry and Cuomo and Califano say about imposing their view of life at home. But as I said, I do think it is easier to believe what Cuomo and Califano said about life than believing what Kerry says.

  9. Claire October 14, 2004 at 11:51 am | | Reply

    Kerry’s position is just more of the left’s moral relativism. To the relativists, there are no absolutes, therefore anyone’s position is valid, and they cannot/will not oppose or condemn those whose moral positions are exactly opposite of theirs. Until, that is, it impacts them personally. Then watch the anger and intolerance spout.

  10. mj October 14, 2004 at 12:45 pm | | Reply


    It’s certainly a theme to justify any policy of non-interference, foreign or domestic. But his non-interference policy doesn’t apply uniformly, such as with fair-trade vs free-trade. If Kerry believes what he says shouldn’t he be against forcing our values on poor foreign countries in this case? Perhaps he would justify defying his principle because he’s “saving the children” from sweatshop working conditions. If so he must believe saving children’s lives is less important, since it does not justify violating this principle.

    I think what we have is a political justification theme, not a principle. He’s going to use this theme whenever he needs to justify inaction. But if he believed the principle he espouses there are many circumstances where his positions would be different. I conclude from this that the priciple he espouses is for political cover rather than any personal conviction.

    You’ll also notice that every time he makes such a statement it brings him closer to Bush than the policies he supports. It’s statistically pretty unlikely that every time this principle applies that would be the case. His use of this justification in all circumstances it applies doesn’t seem at all inconsistent with my theory.

    I don’t find it particularly surprising that he’s doing this, it’s the nature of politicians. But it bothers me that he does it in such an incoherent fashion, and it bothers me that he expects voters to believe what he says rather than what he does. In my opinion there statements should be completely ignored. His supporters call tham nuance. In fact they are inconsistent, post-hoc rationalizations designed to appeal to casual voters who are ideologically between him and Bush by obscuring his positions and presenting himself as more moderate than he is.

  11. ThePrecinctChair October 14, 2004 at 3:50 pm | | Reply

    But more to the point, as I point out in a post on my site, Kerry then goes on to say that it is because of his religious belief that he works for justice, equality, and the environment. But if that is true, how does he do so without imposing his “articles of faith” on those who disagree with him? And why is it ONLY on the most important of issues, those involving life itself, that he doesn’t dare accept the guidance of the Author of Life, even though he does so on lesser issues?

    Just a thought.

  12. […] as I have just discussed in the post immediately preceding this one, Kerry has said that he thinks it would be improper for him to […]

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