Religion influences politics but in different ways

Religion plays a role in legislation involving everything from firearms to health care to marriage in the Virginia General Assembly.

Like their constituents, the vast majority of legislators are Christian. Religious lawmakers say that their faith shapes their values and outlook on life – but that they don’t impose their religious beliefs on others.

“We have a very rich, diverse General Assembly, and that’s a good thing in the sense that we have so many people that come from so many types of backgrounds,” said Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach.

He said being raised in the Christian tradition affects his legislative priorities – instilling in him, for example, a strong belief in an individual’s rights.

“I think my faith influences my worldview in the sense that every single person is created in the image of God and every single person has worth and has value,” Miyares said. “Every person also has conscience, and I think freedom of conscience is one of the hallmarks of how we were created by our creator: freedom of that choice to make decisions as your conscience dictates. Government should be very careful about forcing people to violate their conscience.”



Miyares said his religious background influenced which bills he supported during the General Assembly’s 2017 session – such as HB 1406, introduced by Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem. Although the bill was left in committee, it would have allowed nonviolent felons to carry firearms once their civil rights have been restored.

“I believe in the power of redemption for nonviolent offenders,” Miyares said. “Part of the reason I became a lawyer is that I have a deep appreciation for the law and for how it protects individuals.”

However, Miyares cites more than just religion as a factor on his politics. In 1965, his mother fled Cuba for the United States.

“My story doesn’t begin in Virginia Beach, Virginia; it begins in Havana, Cuba, with a scared 19-year-old girl who got on an airplane with a hope of a better life,” he said. “What I appreciate about this country is the fact that it’s a nation of second chances. My faith, Christianity, is also about second chances and the redemptive power of second chances.”

Based on the religious identification reported by each member of the Virginia General Assembly, about 90 percent identify with some denomination of Christianity. In comparison, about 73 percent of adults in Virginia identify with a form of Christianity, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014.

At the federal level, the religious makeup of the legislative branch has a similar breakdown. According to an analysis of data about the 115th U.S. Congress conducted by the Pew Research Center in January, 91 percent of congressional members describe themselves as Christians, while 71 percent of U.S. adults do the same.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, agreed that religion plays a role in how a legislator will vote on bills, but she cautions against religious convictions getting out of hand in the legislative process.

Price was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended Howard University School of Divinity for her master’s degree in theology. She has paid particular attention to the concept of religion and its role in her own life and the lives of her colleagues.

“When we’re out-rightly infusing religion into something that we’re doing on a policy basis or on a legislative basis, then we have to make sure that it is super-accurate, and we have to be careful about what the unintended implications may be with the words that we choose,” Price said.

Price used HB 2025 from this year’s legislative session as an example of a policy coming from a religious basis.

The bill, introduced by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It would have spelled out the right of pastors and other wedding officiants to refuse to “participate in the solemnization of any marriage,” and would have protected this refusal when the marriage contradicts “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

Price said that such a law would impose a “singular Christian view of marriage” into state policy.

“What I see as problematic is when people confuse holy matrimony with marriage,” Price said, referring to “marriage” in the sense of the state function. “That’s when they start to talk about their own values or beliefs. I’m a Christian, and I believe in marriage equality, so how can someone say that the Christian view is against gay marriage? It doesn’t allow for the diversity even within Christianity when people purport to speak from the ‘Christian perspective.’”

Like Miyares, Price said she sees her own religious experience as an influence on the way she conducts herself in her House district in Newport News and in the General Assembly.

“The way I was raised in my home church definitely impacts how I vote for certain legislation,” she said, noting that religion has instilled in her the values of equality and justice and a commitment to “love thy neighbor.”

According the Price, most of the bills she advocates for concern social justice. That emanates not just from religion but also from her family’s history in the civil rights movement.

“I do think my religion has some impact on what it is that I do, but I also know that other areas of my upbringing had that as well,” Price said. “Not all of us are Christian; not all of us subscribe to a religion in general. But we are making laws that impact all of those lives. I would think it silly to think that religion wouldn’t play a part because of what we bring to the table, but it has to play a part in productive ways.”
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