From civil unions to Duke Aiona’s gubernatorial campaign to state Republican Party Chair Jonah Ka’auwai’s infamous e-mail, religion has been a consistent—and consistently divisive—part of this election season. What’s been mostly missing is the voice of Hawaii’s religious moderates, people of faith who don’t proselytize on the pulpit-pounding fringe.
Reverend John Heidel of the Interfaith Alliance Hawaii wants to change that. This week, Heidel coauthored an op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser titled “God Not Making Endorsements in Hawaii’s Election.” We caught up with Heidel to discuss the relationship between church and state, the role of religion in Hawaii and the sometimes conflicting nature of Scripture.
You’ve said that certain religious groups have inserted a “distorted interpretation of Christianity” into Hawaii politics. Explain what you mean by that.
It’s a distortion to suggest that a Christian could only vote one way or for a particular candidate. It distorts the Christian message to suggest that some candidates are righteous and others are not. Also that a Christian should be against civil unions for gays and lesbians.
But isn’t the opposition to same-sex unions—along with other things like abortion—backed by Scripture?
Yes. However, so is slavery and the right to stone your child to death for disobedience. Some Christians are seeking a new paradigm of belief, one that is not tied to an understanding of God that is 4,000 years old, where power and control are more important than compassion and service. We are looking at Scripture as a historical and metaphorical document—not as literal truth, but a guide to truth.
What, in your view, is an appropriate role for religion to play in an election?
Religion should inform politics and the election process, but not manipulate or coerce. The interconnection between the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech takes careful discernment. While there should not be a religious litmus test to determine a candidate’s qualifications, I think it is important to know how a candidate’s personal faith will impact their political decisions. Within the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, each citizen can match his or her personal views and faith with those of the candidates.
You’ve said that, “Jesus Christ brought people together. He did not separate people,” yet according to the Book of Matthew Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword.” How do you reconcile these seemingly conflicting messages?
This relates to my thoughts [about] how we interpret scripture. This passage in Matthew is a good example of something that must be studied in terms of the historical context and the metaphorical meaning. It would take too long to discuss here, but I’m confident the result would reconcile any possible conflict; in fact, there would be no conflict.
What’s your take on Republican Party Chair Jonah Ka‘auwai’s statement that Duke Aiona is “operating in the power and the authority of Jesus” and that Aiona’s opponents are “unrighteous”?
This relates to the litmus test concept and also indicates a person who believes that he speaks from a position of absolute truth. While [Ka‘auwai] has the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion to make such a statement, the general public needs to understand that he does not speak for all Christians. Also, the ultimate word is expressed in private in the voting booth where each citizen has the freedom to exercise his or her vote according to their individual conscience and personal faith.
The majority of religious people are not fanatics, yet fanaticism seems to rule the day—or at least the headlines. Why do you think this is, and what can reasonable people of faith do to combat it?
This is a question I wish all journalists would answer. Why do bad news and violence make the headlines before good news and acts of kindness? The easy answer is because the former sells papers and the latter does not. However, I think it is a lot more complicated. Our American culture is controlled by the values of power, wealth, success and prestige. Imagine a culture where respect, responsibility, compassion, honesty and fairness were the dominant values. Lifting up and modeling these alternative values is one of the purposes of all religions and reasonable, progressive people of faith need to have the moral courage to keep working at it. Fanaticism will always be an option and if people do not have other options from which to choose—and do so—the fanatics will grab the headlines and appear to be winning.