Where should the line be drawn in religious statements by elected officials? This issue has been debated for years by political philosophers and pundits. While many theorists of deliberative democracy have argued that religious reasons should be kept out of public life since they cannot provide a point of agreement for everyone, others have argued that they are fine in public debate but should not be used by elected leaders in the course of their official duties. Of course, this is partly because the invocation of religion in such circumstances comes dangerously close to the government showing clear preference for one religion over another in legal matters, a breach of the constitutional ban on establishment of religion.
Recently, the newly-elected governor of Alabama made headlines by making a public statement in a church following his inauguration, in which he said that only Christians are his “brothers and sisters,” and that he hopes that people who are not Christians will become his brothers and sisters (in other words, will become Christians). While we might disagree with the exclusive nature of his religious beliefs, they are hardly uncommon. Still, one wonders why he felt the need to share these private beliefs in a public venue and how he thought they were relevant or helpful in his claim to serve as governor to “all of the people of Alabama,” regardless of their religion. Invoking religion to support one’s public actions as a leader is one thing—using one’s public position as a government official for religious proselytization is quite another. Arguably, that alone gives one religion status above others by giving that religion a soapbox for strengthening its rhetoric—other religions do not have that same privilege. This is a reminder that scholars need to be debating not only whether government officials should be using religious discourse at all but also what types of religious discourse among officials are beneficial to democratic life and which types are harmful, creating further fear, division, and hatred.