Lisle, Illinois ~ When it comes to voting on an issue affecting the general populace, sometimes politicians walk a fine line between their religious background and the interests of the people they represent.
“There’s constant conflict in your head,” State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) told an audience of students and faculty members recently at Benedictine University. “The Catholic guilt is really real, especially in Springfield because we have a lot of issues that come up that we really have to drop to our knees and think about. There is a lot of Catholic guilt involved in legislating.”
Chapa LaVia was joined by State Sen. Michael Connelly (R-Naperville) and Christine Fletcher, Ph.D., associate professor of Theology at Benedictine, to discuss what role Catholicism plays in the legislative process as part of the University’s Faith and Politics Series, “Catholic Identities and Public Policymaking: The View from Illinois.” The discussion was moderated by Phil Hardy, assistant professor of Political Science at Benedictine.
While the separation of church and state is meant to prevent government interference in the establishment of religious institutions, and religious institutions from running the nation state – it has been left mostly up to interpretation and debate. The idea, which stems from the First Amendment, does not bar politicians from voting according to their religious values.
All politicians bring their own values – whether from life experience, parental upbringing, or their professional training – to the table to evaluate and make decisions. And whether a legislator happens to have been raised Muslim, Catholic or Jewish, it would be inaccurate to say that one can isolate those values from the decision-making process, Connelly said.
“It’s not a separation of church from state,” said Connelly, whose district includes Lisle, Naperville and other suburbs in DuPage County. “It’s separation of church and state and I think we’ve gotten away from that.
“I think a lot of people come into the public domain and are afraid to admit the truth, which is that we are all creatures of sin. We are people who have received an education from our parents and the community we grew up in. It would be silly to say ‘I don’t bring my religious experience into the public domain,’” Connelly said. “I think that would be disingenuous.”
While legislators may leverage their own beliefs for guidance, they must also listen to their constituents, who are made up of all different religions and backgrounds. Occasionally, this pits legislators in the unviable position of disagreeing with religious leaders of their own faith, Chapa LaVia said.
“Not always do I vote the way I know the Bishop would want me to vote, because I have a constituency that voted for me to go to Springfield to represent them,” Chapa LaVia said.
Legislators also must weigh their own party’s values with their own religious views – something that may force leaders to make tough and unpopular choices in the eyes of their fellow lawmakers. Such was the experience Chapa LaVia encountered in 2010 when only she and one other Democrat voted against a bill supporting civil unions.
“You would have thought I just murdered someone in Springfield,” Chapa LaVia said. “That was a really tough decision for me to make with people who loved and accepted me as a Democrat, but that was the right decision for my district. That was a really hard thing. It took weeks to get over the stares.”
While the state general assembly is made up of representatives and senators who come from many different backgrounds and religions, at the end of the day they must all work together and find common ground on certain issues in order to move the state forward.
When asked about the perceived dysfunction in Springfield, Chapa LaVia and Connelly wanted to make clear that the media doesn’t always portray what happens day-to-day in Springfield accurately.
“It’s not Fox News and MSNBC,” Connelly said. “Maybe for a day or two on a couple of issues, but what we do 99 percent of the time is bipartisan.
“We may disagree on occasion, but by and large there isn’t a single person in the House or Senate that doesn’t want the same thing for their constituents. We want everyone employed, we want everyone to have the best health care, we want safe streets and we want great quality of life. The difference is the path we take.”
Joe Sanders, a junior Political Science major at Benedictine, said the presentation opened up his eyes to just how much influence an individual’s religious background and values can have on public policy-making at the state level.
“I knew that it did play a role, but I didn’t know quite how much of a role it played,” Sanders said. “Even though Benedictine is a Catholic university, there is such a wide dynamic of beliefs and to see how one faith plays into the decision that affects us all directly is huge. It is certainly something that needs to be addressed and understood by young adults and youth that are going to be voting, and it is something that needs to be part of the discussion.”
The event was sponsored by the Center for Mission and Identity, the University’s vehicle for reinforcing the Catholic intellectual tradition on campus, and the Center for Civic Leadership, which provides programs that help prepare students for leadership roles in public service.
Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 55 undergraduate majors and 17 graduate and four doctoral programs. Benedictine University is ranked No. 1 among the country’s fastest-growing campuses between 2000-2010 in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of private nonprofit research institutions, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the third consecutive year in 2013. Benedictine University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2013.