The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America

I love my country. I love my church.

These are the statements with which Ray Suarez opens his 2006 book, The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America. In this book, Suarez, senior correspondent for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, examines the intersection between politics and the Christian faith in the United States today (or, rather, in 2006). He looks at how the church has approached a variety of hot-button issues, such as war, gay marriage, the teaching of evolution, and abortion, and he considers what effect the church has had in these areas, as well as what effect this intermingling of religious and political ideals has had on the church.

In this book, Suarez talks to believers—mostly Christians, but also a few Jewish rabbis—and nonbelievers across the political spectrum to get their take on the how citizens’ religious beliefs should inform the governmental decisions. He also cites Supreme Court cases, historical texts, and interviews by other journalists to give readers a clear sense of the logic behind the various arguments. He quotes extensively, instead of relying on easily distorted sound bites (although, of course, any quote, regardless of how long it is, is taken out of context to some degree). He is also free with his own opinions, pointing out the flaws in his interlocutors’ arguments and sharing how his own experiences have informed his understanding.

One area of emphasis is the extreme rancor that is common in so many debates about politics and religion. When I started reading this book, I had just finished writing a paper about a particular political conflict within churches, so this was heavy on my mind, and comments like this resonated strongly with me:

We Americans do not go into battle crediting the other side of the argument with operating out of goodwill. Increasingly, your opponent is not merely wrong or mistaken, but bad. In the eyes of many fighting to insert more religion into the public sphere, their opponents hate America, hate religion, and will not stop until all signs of religion are chased from the public realm. In the eyes of many fighting for strict separation, the religious will not stop until there is a theocracy in America, until it becomes a conservative Christian state.

The fact that Suarez recognizes that both sides are guilty of fear-mongering and stereotyping is a strong point in this book’s favor. He really seems to believe in the sincerity of people on both sides, and he wants to understand them, even if he disagrees with many of them. His own preference seems to be for separation, although he does not suggest that believers must stay silent on issues that are dear to them. It’s just that “God said it” is not enough to build a civil law on.

I found Suarez’s approach to be even-handed and fair, but I generally agree with him, which no doubt helped. There were a few moments that could be read as snarky, I suppose, but I don’t think he ever gets downright mean. When he argues, he sticks to arguing against a particular point or a way of thinking, rather than against a person’s entire belief system.

Although I appreciated Suarez’s approach and agreed with the major points of his argument, I do think the book suffers from its age. Not all of the topics covered have remained topical in the four years since the book was published. The book is fully immersed in Bush-era politics, and there’s little sense of how progressive Christians have shaped the conversation in recent years. I would be interested to know how the data about Christian voting habits, for example, have changed since 2006. My impression during the 2008 election was that many young evangelicals were voting for Obama because of their keen interest in social justice and environmental issues. Evangelical interest in these issues is mentioned in The Holy Vote, but that line of discussion is never pursued with depth. I’m not sure, however, that there would have been much to pursue in 2006.

I also found at times that there was simply too much information here. For instance, the chapter on the Ten Commandments in public spaces listed numerous court cases about different monuments and plaques. I followed some of those stories when they happened, but I still found the litany of cases bewildering and hard to follow. I appreciate Suarez’s thoroughness, but I’m not sure every fact was necessary.

I read this with my church’s book club, and as you might imagine, we had some vigorous discussions about the topics Suarez brings up. He raises some difficult questions, some of which are perhaps not as relevant as they were in 2006 and many of which are not relevant at all outside the U.S., but the questions about how the church and state should interact remain pertinent today.

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14 Responses to The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America

  1. This sounds really interesting. It’s hard, it seems, to always find a balanced look. Not that I suppose I totally fall in the middle but sometimes it feels like it by the way I can be put off by “both sides” (perhaps there are many sides?)

    • Teresa says:

      It is hard to find balanced perspectives on these issues, and Suarez mostly does a good job, although his own opinion is clear. And I totally know what you mean about being put off by both sides. Happens to me all the time–usually because people are assuming a lack of goodwill in their opponents, just as Suarez says.

  2. Jenny says:

    It must be incredibly frustrating to write nonfiction. Even if you write a brilliant book, it’s out of date in under a decade, unless it’s so brilliant it becomes the definitive book on that subject (and even then it gets all outdated).

    This looks interesting anyway–coming from a family (well, part of my family) of conservative Catholics, and being a liberal Catholic myself, I get frustrated with people on both ends of the faith spectrum.

    • Teresa says:

      Politics seems especially prone to going out of date immediately. I can’t blame Suarez for that, but I kept thinking of trends that became evident with Obama’s election and I wanted Suarez’s take on those.

  3. Jenny says:

    Do you know Suarez’s denominational background? I just did a 3-week seminar that made me think that this affects people’s thinking on this topic more than they may realize. This does sound very interesting and is something that has affected my relationships with people (mostly because of their assumptions about what I “must” think as a Christian.)

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t believe he says right out in the book, but he’s Episcopalian. He actually spoke at an adult forum at my church not long ago.

      And yes, denominational affiliation makes a huge difference here. He doesn’t get into that much; however, the last two classes I took at seminary really brought that to light. Denominations that have been officially part of the political establishment and denominations that never have end up with different foundational assumptions regarding church and state.

  4. bookssnob says:

    This sounds really interesting and might be one for me to pick up as part of my year of reading about America. I’m fascinated by the arguments to do with religion and government in the US – it’s not something that’s really an issue here but it certainly seems to be in the Us. I’d be interested to understand why US Christians who want a theocracy are so set on making religion part of the state – as a Christian myself I can’t think of anything worse! Enforced religion isn’t religion at all.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, I agree. I have no interest in a theocracy, and neither do many U.S. Christians. We just aren’t the ones who get the media attention, alas.

      Suarez does give a lot of historical context that probably would be of interest to you. He doesn’t really explain why some feel as they do, but his quotes are extensive enough to enable readers to get inside different people’s heads.

  5. Political books have such a high turnover that it’s ridiculous- I almost feel like they start aging poorly immediately, unless it’s about historical politics.

  6. This book looks pretty interesting, although Jenny’s point about dated-ness is a good one, especially for a book like this. I like that you said he believes in the sincerity of both sides because that’s something I think we tend to forget — when someone has a different opinion it’s easy to demonize in some way, but harder to recognize they have a genuine point you disagree with. Anyway, sounds like a good book!

    • Teresa says:

      Even-handed is so rare, it’s true, especially when we feel passionate. Suarez doesn’t hold back on his opinions, but I liked that he also really seemed to listen to the other side.

  7. Iris says:

    This sounds interesting. Politics and religion is always such a controversial subject. I recently had to read a book about it for a class, but it was more of an ethical theory: Religious Commitment and Secular Reason by Robert Audi.

    I’d love to read this book, but I’d like it even more if it was more up to date.

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