(Kristin Lenz/The Washington Post)

You don’t have to be Christian to know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. In fact, scholars note that it is the one precept common to all major faith traditions. But in his interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts on Wednesday, President Obama cited the Golden Rule as found in Matthew 7:12 when describing the role his Christian faith played in leading him to support same-sex marriage.

“When we think about our faith,” he explained, “the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule. . . . Treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

Announcing to the nation that he thinks that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry wasn’t the first time Obama has linked his Protestant beliefs to his support for specific policies. In his address at the National Prayer Breakfast this year, he credited his faith for inspiring policies as diverse as funding for medical research and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. “Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper [and] caring for the poor and those in need,” Obama said, are values “that have defined my own faith journey.”

American politics is rife with religious rhetoric — but in the modern era, it has almost always been deployed on behalf of conservative positions. Religious communities helped rally support for the North Carolina ballot proposition prohibiting same-sex marriage and civil unions, which passed Tuesday. No less an evangelical icon than Billy Graham appeared in print ads statewide to urge its passage, under the message: “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.” Liberal politicians, on the other hand, have tended to ground their positions in secular arguments, and often warned that Republicans were endangering the separation of church and state.

Obama cited several reasons for his support for gay marriage, including conversations with U.S. troops, his family and his staff. But his assertion that his views on same-sex marriage come from — not despite — his Christian faith marks a shift in U.S. politics. Democratic politicians now unabashedly cite religion when making their case, and GOP leaders sometimes find themselves in the unusual position of justifying — rather than merely stating — their religious claims. That’s something that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has cited his Catholic faith as a basis for the massive spending cuts in his proposed budget, has learned recently. Politicians from both parties now make explicitly religious arguments for opposing positions.

There was a time not long ago when the discussion of religion in politics centered on liberal causes — think of the civil rights movement or opposition to the war in Vietnam. When the religious right exploded onto the political scene in the late 1970s, however, many Democrats concluded that the introduction of religion into political discussion was a conservative act.

As they shied away from religious references, that assumption became self-fulfilling. By 2004, the meaning of words such as “morality” and “Christianity” had become so one-sided that exit polls for that year’s presidential election used the phrase “moral values” as shorthand for a circumscribed category of conservative concerns such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage when asking what issues had most influenced voters’ decisions.

That exit poll question, as well as attacks on Democratic nominee John F. Kerry by Roman Catholic leaders for his support of abortion rights, inspired a collective epiphany among Democrats. They began to remind voters — and one another — that issues such as education, health care and protecting the environment reflected strongly held values as well. In 2006, Democrats won back control of Congress with the help of a new cast of candidates who spoke easily about their faith and beliefs.

No group was more galvanized than Catholic Democrats, who were tired of Catholic leaders telling them they were bad Catholics or disinviting them from events at Catholic institutions. A group of young Catholic activists formed an organization called Catholics United, in part to hold politicians accountable on the issues they saw Catholic leaders largely ignoring. In 2007, they ran ads on Christian radio in the districts of members of Congress who opposed abortion and voted against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. “He says he’s pro-life, but for the second time in a month he’s voted against health-care for kids,” said the ad’s female narrator. “That’s not pro-life.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is another Catholic who has been frustrated by the fact that although Church leaders criticize her votes on abortion legislation, they remain silent about her Republican Catholic colleagues who deviate from church teaching on other issues. Last month, DeLauro made public a letter she sent to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calling on him to “personally address the devastating impact of this [GOP] budget.”

The bishops are usually swift to speak out regarding budget documents. But this year they have been preoccupied by a campaign for religious freedom in response to the Obama administration’s mandate that health insurance cover contraception. They had remained silent about the GOP budget. Embarrassed by DeLauro’s missive, the USCCB released several letters stating opposition to the budget — one called proposed cuts “unjustified and wrong” — four days later.

Nearly all of the Republican congressional leaders are Catholic, and they have been made particularly uncomfortable by the resurgence of an active Catholic opposition on the left. Last year, the head of Catholics United approached Ryan with a Bible and asked him to spend more time reading the Book of Matthew than Ayn Rand, who Ryan has said inspired him to enter public service. Video cameras captured Ryan awkwardly speed-walking away from the proffered Bible and into a waiting SUV.

Just in the past month, Ryan has attempted to explain how Catholic social teaching shaped his budget, only to have nearly 100 faculty members at Georgetown University sign a letter taking issue with his interpretation before a scheduled speech at the Catholic campus. And both he and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) have stumbled in response to the bishops’ criticism of the GOP budget. Ryan first tried to insist that the bishops’ letters represented the views of just a few people (they were in fact elected to represent the other bishops). And Boehner dismissed the bishops’ concerns, saying they needed to take “a bigger look” at the issue.

This new bipartisan politics of religion is a good thing — both for religion and for politics. For several decades, the right has held a monopoly over what it means to be religious in the United States, not to mention Christian or evangelical. The result has been devastating for the image of Christianity. When the Barna Group polled Americans ages 16 to 29 on what words best describe Christianity, the top response was “anti-homosexual.” The other common associations were “judgmental,” “hypocritical” and “too involved in politics.”

It has not helped that for years, conservative politicians have explained their opposition to gay rights by simply stating, “I’m a Christian,” as if that automatically requires one to abhor the idea of same-sex marriage. Recent debates about the protection of religious freedom have assumed that the only religious motives that count are conservative ones. That’s the concept at the core of arguments about the contraception mandate, as well as a number of religious freedom bills moving through state legislatures. Enthusiasm for those efforts might well flag if religious progressives were to demand protection for their beliefs as well.

Our politics benefit from including more religious perspectives. When politicians are forced to say how their faith informs their policies — instead of just citing it as part of their political identity — it becomes more difficult to use religion as a blanket explanation for a partisan stance. Instead of asserting that his budget is shaped by his Catholicism, Ryan has to delve into the tradition of Catholic social teaching. Boehner has to explain why he thinks the U.S. bishops are wrong to criticize the budget. And Obama will inevitably have to take on the charges from conservative Christians who are already calling his linkage of the Golden Rule and support for same-sex marriage “an appalling blasphemy.” Indeed, one of his own spiritual advisers — evangelical pastor Joel Hunter — says he is “disappointed” by Obama’s decision.

After years of pretending that the culture wars were a matter of religious views lined up against secular beliefs, politicians are recognizing what average Americans knew all along. A majority of Americans now believe that there is more than one way to get to heaven, pollsters report. Our political discussions finally reflect that there’s also more than one answer to the question: “What would Jesus do?”


Amy Sullivan is the author of “The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap” and a former senior editor at Time magazine.

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