When moderator Martha Raddatz asked Vice President Biden and Republican presidential candidate Paul Ryan about their views on abortion at last week’s debate, she was immediately critiqued for couching the question in religious terms. There were many critics who didn’t think that “a woman’s right to choose” debate should be reduced to the theology of political candidates. I’m in agreement with my Washington Post colleague Sally Quinn who states that “it was the right thing to do.”
Raddatz’s framing not only acknowledged how prominent Catholic faith is in both men’s lives, but it also gave way to their polarized responses, as Biden and Ryan passionately conveyed how their personal faith does (and does not) play out in shaping their public policy.
Biden emphatically stated his desire to not stand between a woman and her doctor when making life-altering decisions about her body. Ryan, on the other hand, said he can’t “see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or their faith.”
This statement speaks not only to who he is as a policy maker but reflects on a large majority of the Republican Party as a whole. Time and time again, Republican politicians have displayed an inability to separate their personal religious convictions from policies affecting millions of Americans.
Ryan reminds me of the young men that I went to seminary with who had a very hard time acknowledging their own privilege when engaged in religious debates. They boldly argued that the Bible calls for a woman’s silence in the church and “upheld” that portion of Scripture without factoring in their inherent privilege as men. They gave little thought to what was at stake for us as female ministers.
Yet, most of these men also admitted to having premarital sex regularly. They overlooked the fact that they were only upholding the aspects of the Bible that didn’t conflict with their personal needs and desires.
Ryan rightly stated that politicians can’t compartmentalize their identities as easily as we would want them to. But he and Mitt Romney seem to have a much easier time doing it when it comes to matters of social responsibility. Biden shed light on this when he emphasized Catholic social doctrines that command believers to care for the poor and disadvantaged. How often have you heard Republican politicians (whether Catholic or Protestant) highlight this Christian imperative in their statements of faith?
While the conviction that grounds Ryan’s abortion response is admirable, it echoes countless other Republican politicians who speak as if they have mastered moral perfectionism. This is a religious rubric that often wants to hold others accountable to what has (seemingly) been accomplished in one’s own faith life. This tension of the public and private has long been the Achilles’ heel of the Republican Party.
Biden’s refusal to impose his individual theology on others shows that he recognizes the importance of seeing beyond himself when shaping policies that will define the future of our country.
All too often, politicians live out their faith in an à la carte manner. They pick and choose what they will and will not ask of themselves and others. They do so without acknowledging that we are all riddled with moral contradictions and hypocrisy.
But rigidity is never a good measure of how devout a politician is in their faith and how immense their desire to please their Creator is. It is, instead, a sign of their inability to separate individual wants and idealism from what masses of people have to live out on a daily basis.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.