Monday, October 5, 2020

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Do candidates’ religious beliefs matter when appointing senior public figures?

Readers will recall the vigorous discussions centred on Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation back in 2012 – opinion was divided about whether his being a practising Mormon should count or not when casting a vote.

No, of course not, tends to be the standard liberal democratic response. Religion is a private matter. It has nothing to do with whether someone can do the job or not, and that is all that should count.

Richard Dawkins was not so accommodating when he threw in his sixpence worth:

If you knew that one of the candidates you’re contemplating voting for believed that in the 19th century a man called Joseph Smith dug up some golden tablets which he translated [into 17th century English] and then conveniently lost … [who] believes that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, believes that native Americans are the lost 10 tribes of Israel, believes that Jesus visited North America … I mean, these beliefs are barking mad! … Isn’t it a fair defence for him to say, “Oh, don’t worry, I won’t let my beliefs interfere with my policies”? … But do you want to vote for a candidate who’s capable of holding in his head such unrealistic nonsense? Do you want a President who believes palpably foolish things?

I will go a step further than Dawkins: can you believe that candidate when he says that his beliefs won’t influence the way he does his job? A conundrum presents itself here: if he is truthful in making that claim, he is obviously not sincere in his beliefs; if he is not being truthful, he is lying. Either way, he is not worthy of the trust invested in him by society in placing him in a high position of authority.

I am not suggesting for one moment that people with religious convictions should be barred from holding office. Moderates such as David Cameron and John Howard are as fit to lead a country as anyone else, indeed more so than most. The key distinction is that they believe in the separation of Church and State and they practise what they preach. But can we trust members of the wacky religious periphery to observe the same rule?

The same line of argument goes for judges. One case in this regard that sticks in my mind is that of Sarah Catt in the UK 8 years ago. She had done a late-term home termination job using a labour-inducing drug procured from India, and had reported that the child had been stillborn. When the matter came before a court, she had the misfortune to come before a judge who was also a leading light in the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, an extreme fundamentalist group that lobbies against abortion. While delivering the maximum sentence at his disposal, the judge  opined that

… in my judgement all right thinking people would consider this offence more serious than manslaughter or any offence on the calendar other than murder.

The three judges of the Court of Appeal did not appear to be “right thinking people” as they drastically reduced her sentence, noting that it had been “manifestly excessive”.

That judge should not have presided over her case. There was very obviously a conflict of interests between his duty to apply the law and his personal religious beliefs as those pertain to abortion. The latter had prevailed. As noted by Ben Quinn and Owen Bowcott in The Guardian,

There is nothing wrong with a judge being a Christian, but that is a very different thing to being a 'Christian judge' who wants to apply biblical principles to judgments when those principles might not accord with the civil law that he or she is charged to uphold. (from

That brings me to Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s choice for the vacancy in the US Supreme Court left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a Roman Catholic, which is not necessarily a big deal, although it can be – orthodox Catholics believe that they are above ‘Man’s law’, and we reinforce that delusion by observing the ‘seal of confession’ which means that Catholic priests are absolved from having to divulge details of confessions of the most serious wrongdoings to the State authorities, including courts. More importantly, however, she is a member of the ‘People of Praise’, a branch of the Pentecostal movement that operates largely within Catholicism. That raises a red flag.

An intelligent woman with wacky religious beliefs. Can she be trusted to keep those out of her decision-making as a US Supreme Court judge?

Pentecostalism involves beliefs and practices verging on the insane. One of their quaint rituals is entering a trance-like state and babbling incoherently – they call it ‘being filled with the Holy Spirit’ and ‘speaking in tongues’. It is not unusual to see someone writhing on the ground during a Pentecostal meeting as a sign of being ‘filled with the spirit’. The People of Praise appear to be into these larks. From their website:

Like hundreds of millions of other Christians in the Pentecostal movement, People of Praise members have experienced the blessing of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts as described in the New Testament. 

Quite frankly, it is only the cloak of religious freedom of expression that shields them from being apprehended by orderlies in white coats and being bundled into vans headed straight for Funny Farm.

I don’t know whether Ms Barrett personally indulges in those esoteric pastimes, but the fact that she is willingly affiliated with a crowd like that raises huge questions not only about her sanity but also about her fitness to hold high public office in a secular system of government.

She is on record as saying that she will not allow her religious beliefs to influence her decisions as a Supreme Court judge. Is she not sincere about those beliefs, then? Or is she trying to pull the wool over our (and maybe her own) eyes?

Joan Walsh in an article titled “Amy Coney Barrett’s extreme religious beliefs merit examination” in The Nation of 26 September cogently argues that

Her Catholicism is irrelevant. The worldview of the fringe right-wing sect she has grown up in definitely isn’t.

She is … a hypocrite. She has written that Catholic judges who believe their church’s teachings against the death penalty should recuse themselves from death penalty cases, but she goes out of her way to get involved in cases involving abortion. If she believes her religious views would prevent her from impartially enforcing secular law on capital punishment, why can’t she admit they do the same when it comes to women’s established legal right to make their own health decisions?

Believers – especially the more articulate ones – have an uncanny ability to convince themselves, and others of like mind, that the reasons for their decisions and actions arise from outside their belief system even when it is patently obvious to a detached observer that they don’t. An excellent recent example of this tendency was the Irish Attorney-General’s denial of the recognition of a marriage conducted in a polygamous jurisdiction on the grounds that the marriage would not have been allowed under Irish law (for details see my article “Ireland and Canada grapple with polygamy”, Breaking View 6 August 2017). The A-G, a devout Catholic, was way out of order and ended up being rapped over the knuckles by the Irish Supreme Court.

People in high places in a democracy under the Rule of Law must set aside their personal beliefs to a certain extent when exercising that authority. They may hold eccentric views as citizens of a democracy but they should not impose those views through the exercise of their public duty. It is a matter of the rights of the person versus the duties of the persona. But I have difficulty seeing how committed members of loony-fringe fundamentalist sects who essentially do not believe in secular law can possibly make a distinction between the two, as they would be betraying their faith by doing so (see also my articles “The non-religiousorigins of law” and “The bibliolatrouspolitical right”.

When evaluating candidates for public office, I do look at their religious beliefs. If I see a mainstream religious moderate, I ignore that idiosyncrasy when deciding on how to cast my vote. If I see a member of the deranged fringe, I cross that person off my list, as I do not trust that character to uphold the principle of governmental secularism. If I had any say in the matter, Amy Coney Barrett would not be going anywhere near a courtroom in a judicial role, let alone the Supreme Court – a court which can override legislation emanating from elected legislatures.

This has not been an easy article for me to write. I am of a morally conservative bent and am favourably inclined towards the ‘pro-life’ camp in the abortion debate. Barrett is Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court and if I were American I would be voting for Trump in November. But on my scale of priorities, defending the principle of the separation of Church and State trumps both considerations (no pun intended).

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at


Iain H said...

As one apparently on the verge of insanity, I read your article with interest.
Your points made are taken.
However one point I think absent from your focused diatribe is the rise and increasing normalisation of modern paganism and its pseudo scientific religious sects.
Examples of this are increasingly mainstream and presented by various green politicians and public figures as acceptable views and indeed form the basis for much public policy.
Therefore interested to read how would you might place these views in the current world narrative of "#wearethevirus", "scientific consensus" etc and if such "on the verge of insanity" paganist beliefs should also be separated from the state? If so, then how?

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

Sorry, Iain H, I don't see any connection. All I see is a glaring non sequitur. I am not even sure what you mean by 'modern paganism' although I suspect it refers to science..... does it?
I think you should look up the word 'diatribe' too - your post conforms much better to a dictionary definition thereof than does my article!

KiwiYankK3 said...

Pelosi and Biden are practicing Catholics. Watch the hypocrisy fly!
...BTW, remember JFK? First Catholic president & revered Dem.
Today he would be a Tea Party member believing in tax cuts, less government, and strong military.
The Democratic Socialist party is real in 2020 USA.

Empathic said...

A couple of comments:

Firstly, men in white coats would not cart away those who may be writhing on the ground babbling incoherently, because modern definitions of mental illness and even more so the severity of mental illness sufficient to force hospitalization and treatment on someone require their symptoms to be causing significant and sustained impairment to the person's work, interpersonal relations or self-care. It's clear that it's quite possible to hold and practice a range of very irrational beliefs whilst maintaining successful life and social functioning.

Secondly, I question the distinction you draw between 'mainstream religion' and 'the wacky religious periphery'. Virgin birth, resurrection from death, human sacrifice to absolve us all of sinful debt we are born with and so forth are no less ridiculous than Joseph Smith's claimed achievements. I won't even start on mainstream Muslim beliefs in fear of a death fatwa. Your argument needs to prove that people from the two groups you distinguish actually differ (at a level of statistical significance) in their acceptance of the separation of state from religion and in the extent to which their religious beliefs corrupt their administrative decisions. Indeed, in the two examples you provide of such corrupted decisions it is not clear that those decision makers belonged to any wacky religious periphery; the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship spreads teachings consistent with mainstream Christian beliefs and the Irish Attorney-General was simply a devout Catholic. These two decision makers did not sit on the fence regarding mainstream religious teachings and they allowed those teachings to direct their decisions. Your conundrum regarding sincerity of beliefs versus truthfulness about setting aside those beliefs applies equally to all religious followers.

Anonymous said...

I worry more about Moslems holding office. The Islamic religion is full of hate towards we 'infidels' and when in office they work steadily and quietly towards undermining our complete way of life. You need only look at Shiera Law to see how differently they view everything.

Mervyn said...

I have listened carefully to as many as Amy Coney Barrett. She admits she is a practising Catholic with conservative views but in relation to the American her conservatism is to interpret as originally written and should the outcome be not as the public desires it is up to the democratic process to alter it. In comparisan Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated position was to interpret the constitution to bring about the stated policies the public desired. Othewords Ginsburg and her likewise minded Supreme Court colleagues wanted to make law from the bench ignoring the political process. It is this method the Democrat Party endorse because they fear it is easier to appoint judges to advance their agenda than to get the public support it. In the case of Roby Wade there was no right to abortion even contemplated by the constitution authors. It was up to the States who are independent to write their own laws regarding the issue. If it was felt the states right should be overruled the constitution would need to amended to do so.. As it is some states are stopping the right to excercise abortion once a heartbeat is heard and others allowing abortion up to the moment of natural birth allowing the live child to "comfortably" die for lack of life support. Donald Trump has recently signed a decree demanding that all live born children have the same right to life supporting medical care. I believe in a women's right to choose within some moral limitations. There is nothing to suggest Amy Barrett moral compass in this regard would override her legal duty.
The authors piece is nothing more than a rotten hit p[iece, and while I am an atheist I believe Richard Dawkins gives atheism a bad name. The man is a bigot.

Alan said...

The Old Testament is very clear about separation of church and state (e.g. stories about kings Saul and Uzziah). Biden is a "devout Catholic"; and also corrupt, and happy to kill and destroy. He frightens me more than Trump does.

I see nothing wrong with devout aetheists, vegans, Christians, in government; but I am unhappy to see "devout" of any kind forcing their beliefs on others.

MRH said...

I usually respect and value the good Proff's comments - but confused knowledge has not resulted in wisdom in this case. MRH

Auntie Podes said...

How interesting that the question of irrational beliefs mattering when appointing senior public figures focuses only on the Christian and Mormon beliefs. What about those of a certain undoubtedly barbaric, vicious and irrational religion which we are not permitted to discuss?
Aunty Podes.

Jennifer Harrison said...

I would rather have a leader who has strong Christian principles than one who espouses outdated Marxism. Former has a moral compass, latter does not.

mills said...

Barend V does what a good academic should do....examines, comments, and practices with a trained and disciplined mind & to publish his or her conclusions with the motive of seeking light and clarity about the particular issue in question.
On the other hand I don't think readers should be overly impressed by knowledge and eloquence in themselves. We have to consider where these studies and opinions might there particular utility in advancing the common good.
G. B. Shaw I think, once observed that..."those who can, 'do'...and those who can't,...'teach'" In other words some use a clock to tell the time, but others more curious and maybe technically skilled like to take the back off the clock to see what makes it tick!
In this specific paper BV highlights the difficulty of selecting people to high office to carry out public functions which might be compromised by the candidate's strong personal views and personal philosophies.
Unfortunately for me BV's tone and use of quotes from Richard Dawkins (a man holding some pretty 'wacky ideas himself) rather suggested some pretty subjective views even before studying the subject & publishing the conclusions.
.From a utilitarian point of view...(what works now in our society, and what might work in the future)...who is truly fit to hold office? In my lifetime we have seen many public figures exposed to ridicule...usually after they have died. Priests, politicians, business and social leaders have often affirmed the truism that each one of us, to a greater or lesser degree present a public persona quite different to our inner thoughts belief and behaviour.
The examples BV provides simply acknowledges that individuals are never to be entirely trusted but need to be constrained by constitutional measures that place safeguards appropriate to the particular office. ...often by sharing the the US Supreme Court or have methods of appeal to a higher authority. That is how our ever evolving human institutions function despite the very variable & faliable human resource.
So good on BV for attempting to highlight the issue but heaven help us if academic nostrums are anything other than minor contributions towards the continuing utility of our many and varied institutions in a civil society! I am put in mind of the old adage..."perfection is the enemy of good".
I do wonder whether NZ is alone in being infested with hundreds of youngish "professors", dedicated mainly to advancing wacky (PC) social engineering as the only answer to our nation's needs? Perhaps a year or ten in Beruit might temper their naivety?

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

You make a good case, Empathetic!
Re: chaps in white coats, you must allow me some literary licence. Mind you, having seen what happens at some of those meetings, one may legitimately wonder whether they would 'get away with it' were they NOT members of a recognised religious movement.
They key statement in your second para is that "they allowed those teachings to direct their decisions." That, to me, is the crunch. Here we have high office holders in a secular governmental system overriding the dictates of the secular State with their personal beliefs. Now that's a bit naughty, surely. Never mind about conducting ANOVAs on groups distinguished by religious stance: the acid test is whether someone puts the principle of State secularism first or not. If the answer is 'no' or even 'maybe', that person should not hold office.
Mervyn, it's not very nice to call my article a "rotten hit piece" as I did not sink to personal abuse. I consider it entirely legitimate for me to express my misgivings about people who fundamentally do not believe in governmental secularism being appointed to senior positions in the government and the judiciary.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

Aunty Podes and Anonymous, you are quite right in alluding to Islam as being inherently anti-secular. This is because Islamic law contains a blueprint for governance. Nevertheless, Muslims particularly in the UK have been coming around to the idea that what worked in the 7th century may not be the way to go in the 21st. While the expression 'secular Islam' may appear an oxymoron to many (including more conservative Muslims), it is becoming a reality.


I feel there is a general confusion today over the term 'separation of Church and State'. It has meant over past ages that the church is protected from interference by the state. Locke's "letter Concerning Toleration" defended the right of the individual to exercise freedom of conscience and to be able to worship in the manner thy wished without interference of the state. Even today the are still countries that have state religions, some even requiring a person to submit to that religion before they can hold public office. So separation of Church and State means that a person's beliefs may influence their politics, but the State has no right to dictate what a persons beliefs should be.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

From Mills above: "The examples BV provides simply acknowledges that individuals are never to be entirely trusted but need to be constrained by constitutional measures that place safeguards appropriate to the particular office. ...often by sharing the the US Supreme Court or have methods of appeal to a higher authority. That is how our ever evolving human institutions function despite the very variable & faliable human resource."
Nicely put! I agree!
Don't read too much into my 'tone' - the 'nasty' bits are usually tongue-in-cheek.
MP Cuncannon: an individual's right to practise his/hr faith without State interference is one thing but the right to apply those beliefs when acting in a governmental capacity is quite another. This is a major point I make. When someone takes on a senior public role, it is imperative that s/he puts the law above his/her private beliefs. S/he should not be in that position of power if not prepared to do so.

Kerry said...

I think your article makes one thing clear. That you believe those that hold a high office and aren't religious don't also have beliefs and values that affect their judgments. And that they don't refer to their own worldview, (whether agnostic, atheist, philsophical naturalist or what have you) in reference to those judgements they are called to make. That would appear to make you either naiive, or disengenuous.

With regard to your example of a judge, that is a different thing than what a politician brings to his area of interest. As you point out, a judge must refer and defer to the law, by which he or she is bound and somewhat limited in the scope of their value judgements. Whereas no such requirement is made of politicians who are by popular choice, mostly elected on who they are as people.

It seems you conflate the issue of the separation of church and state. It's about keeping religion pure and without fear or favour from government, and coercion and freedom of conscience with regards to following your faith, whether that is a religious faith or a "secular" one.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

>"I think your article makes one thing clear. That you believe those that hold a high office and aren't religious don't also have beliefs and values that affect their judgments."
No, I don't believe that at all. I am just as scathing about those who hold extreme 'left' views. On this occasion, I am targeting people who hold religious views that are in conflict with the principle of governmental secularism.
There isn't as much difference between politicians and judges in this regard as you seem to imply. Both are agents of the State. Where that State is a secular one, there could arise a conflict between the governmental ideology of the State and that office-holder's personal (in this instance, religious) beliefs.
Um, quick English lesson: you can't 'conflate' one thing, you need two. And you are quite wrong in claiming that the purpose of the doctrine of separation of church and State is to keep religion 'pure' (whatever THAT means given the endless schisms within all religions!). It is to keep institutional religion out of the instruments of governance - government and law.