Religion and political corruption

The Republican Party has taken ownership of religious ground in America and the Democratic Party has awakened to the need to claim votes from people of faith. However, financial and moral scandals still affect politicians of both parties, leaving neither side in a position to accuse the other of “a culture of corruption.” But what happens when government leaders claim to be religious? How do their public actions reflect on their faith? Should the religious community respond?


On Sept. 15, 2006, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) became the first elected official to agree to plead guilty in the congressional corruption probe involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, setting off a new wave of voter disgust. Political pundits said the July 2006 defeat of Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition whose opponent in the Georgia primary pounded on his ties to Abramoff, was the first sign of voter backlash against political corruption. Numerous polls indicated that voters are tired of legislators committing crimes and distrust politicians in both parties. More recent corruption scandals, including former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi and former governor of Illinois Rod R. Blagojevich, continue the trend of corruption in U.S. politics and the loss of voters’ faith in their elected officials.

All this happened at a time when more politicians were overtly talking about their faith and the importance of religion. President Bush said he saw signs of a “Great Awakening” of spirituality. An increased prominence of religion in the public square, however, has not led to an increase in ethical behavior among political leaders. Meanwhile, U.S. religious organizations kept a low profile on an issue that may reshape the face of government leadership.

Why it matters

Ethics investigations and arrests affect many elections, and polls show that many Americans would like religious leaders to speak out on public issues.

Questions for reporters

If more politicians are portraying themselves as people of faith, should they be held to higher ethical standards? When a politician strays from previously stated religious standards, what should the religious community’s response be?

Should U.S. religious organizations address political scandals? What do clergy and the people in the pews say?

Is political corruption an indicator of wider, societal corruption or acceptance of unethical behavior? Or, if Americans have come to expect unethical behavior among politicians, what are the implications of that?

What is the role of forgiveness?

Does the U.S. political system corrupt people who enter it?

News articles and research reports


National sources

  • Ravi Batra

    Ravi Batra is an economics professor at Southern Methodist University and author of The New Golden Age: The Coming Revolution Against Political Corruption and Economic Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming January 2007). Batra says journalists should investigate such issues as how political corruption creates poverty and how politicians exploit religion to get elected and then adopt policies to benefit themselves and the wealthy.

  • Ted G. Jelen

    Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.

  • Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

    The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., is dedicated to researching modern ethical issues and attempting to create solutions in diverse fields such as bioethics, the Internet, government and character ethics.

  • Michael Cromartie

    Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he heads its Evangelicals in Civic Life program. He is also an expert on religious liberty and Christianity and politics. His books include, as editor, Religion and Politics in America: A Conversation.

  • Michael Josephson

    Michael Josephson is founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition.

  • Stephen D. Potts

    Stephen D. Potts is chairman of the board of directors of the Ethics Resource Center, a nonprofit educational center that tries to strengthen ethical leadership worldwide by providing expertise, research, education and partnerships. He was a member of the Ethics Education Task Force for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and from 1990-2000 he was director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

  • E.J. Dionne Jr.

    E.J. Dionne Jr. is a senior fellow for governance studies at the Brookings Institution. His books include, as co-editor, What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment?

    Contact: 202-797-6178, 202-797-6105.
  • Madeleine Albright

    Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, is the author of The Mighty and the AlmightyReflections on America, God, and World Affairs (HarperCollins, 2006). She founded the Albright Group LLC, chairs the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and teaches at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

  • Newt Gingrich

    Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wrote Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future (Integrity, 2006). Gingrich has a doctorate in history.

  • Joseph Telushkin

    Rabbi Joseph Telushkin was spiritual leader of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. He wrote Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews, as well as several books on Jewish ethics, such as The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living and The Ten Commandments of Character: Essential Advice for Living an Honorable, Ethical, Honest Life.

  • Rebecca Larson

    The Rev. Rebecca Larson is director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Division for Church in Society, which publishes a magazine on Lutheran ethics.

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.

  • Melissa Snarr

    Melissa Snarr is an associate professor of ethics and society and a Christian social ethicist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Her research focuses on political and religious ethics, social change, religion and war and religion and politics.

    She says angles to consider when reporting on corruption include whether the U.S. political system corrupts basically good politicians who enter it; how, if “love of money is the root of all evil,” Christian denominations are engaging its growing role in politics; and what the role of forgiveness is in politics, especially around issues of corruption.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Alan Wolfe

    Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a frequent commentator on religion and politics. His books include The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, which focuses on the impact of evangelicals on American religious culture. He has written widely on secularism.

  • Dennis F. Thompson

    Dennis F. Thompson is a professor of public policy and political philosophy at Harvard University and founding director of Harvard’s university-wide ethics program, now the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. His books on political ethics include, as co-author, Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments (Wadsworth Publishing, 2005).

  • John Jefferson Davis

    John Jefferson Davis is a professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. He has expertise in world religions, theology, homosexuality, abortion, medical ethics, just war, bioethics, environmental ethics, intelligent design, business ethics and biblical ethics. He teaches a course titled “Christian Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today.”

  • Andrew Walsh

    Andrew Walsh is associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he is managing editor of Religion in the News magazine and teaches history and religion.

  • Randall Balmer

    Randall Balmer holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He is an expert on American religious history and especially American evangelicalism and the role of religion in American presidential politics. He is the author of Evangelicalism in America, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter and God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

  • Arthur B. Dobrin

    Arthur B. Dobrin is the leader emeritus of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island and a professor of humanities at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. He teaches courses in ethical education, personal ethics and religious ethics. His books include, as author, Ethics for Everyone: How to Improve Your Moral Intelligence (John Wiley & Sons, 2002).

  • Bernard K. Freamon

    Bernard K. Freamon is a law professor at Seton Hall University in Newark, N.J., where his teaching load includes courses on Islamic jurisprudence; law in the modern Middle East; and slavery, human trafficking and the law.

  • Eugene Borowitz

    Rabbi Eugene Borowitz is a professor of Jewish religious thought at the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College in New York City. His books include Exploring Jewish Ethics and, as co-author, The Jewish Moral Values.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak, philosopher, theologian and public policy commentator at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, is the author of Questions about Liberation Theology (Paulist Press, 1991). He argued that by the late 1980s, liberation theology was in danger “of slipping into a backwater” because it had done very little to help the poor. He is also author of The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Consecration of the American Spirit. Many consider his book on sports and religion the first and best on the topic.

  • Michael Walzer

    Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He is a prominent expert on just war theory and the author of Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations.

  • Jeffrey Stout

    Jeffrey Stout is professor of religion emeritus at Princeton University in New Jersey. He is the author of Democracy and Tradition.

  • Akbar S. Ahmed

    Akbar S. Ahmed is a professor of comparative and regional studies and professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., where he holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies. He has advised world leaders on Islam and was formerly High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. He has engaged in public dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in the U.S. and abroad. Ahmed has written widely and is a frequent television commentator on Islam. He is author of Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. He also undertook a yearlong “anthropological journey” across America with a team of students studying American diversity. The journey has been documented via blog.

  • Becky Garrison

    Becky Garrison, a Manhattan-based freelance writer and senior contributing editor for the religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door, is the author of Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar ( Jossey-Bass, 2006).

In the South

  • Elizabeth Bounds

    Elizabeth Bounds is associate director of the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. She co-wrote the book Welfare Policy: (Feminist Critiques) (Pilgrim Press, 1999).

  • Applied Ethics Institute

    The Applied Ethics Institute based at St. Petersburg College in Florida works to promote ethical education and behavior in the region.

    Contact: 727-341-4335.
  • Ronald T. Libby

    Ronald T. Libby is a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Florida. He specializes in political ethics and is a senior fellow at the Florida Blue Center for Ethics. He can be contacted via the contact form found here.

  • Anthony V. Alfieri

    Anthony V. Alfieri is a law professor at Miami University in Coral Gables, Fla., where he founded and directs the Center for Ethics and Public Service. The center offers ethics training to government agencies.

  • Steven M. Tipton

    Steven M. Tipton is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Sociology of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. He researches American religion and politics, and the sociology of morality.

  • Thomas V. Morris

    Thomas V. Morris is a former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and author, with his son Matt Morris, of Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice and the Socratic Way. Thomas Morris founded the Wilmington, N.C.-based Morris Institute, which seeks to apply ancient wisdom to the modern world.

  • David Reidy

    David Reidy is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His research interests include integrity, political and legal philosophy, human rights and public office. 

  • Mark Hulsether

    Mark Hulsether, Religious Studies Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has written extensively on religion and popular culture. He wrote the 2007 book Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Edinburgh University Press). He has also written about North American liberation theologies and the transformation of the Protestant left since World War II.

  • Robin Meyers

    The Rev. Robin Meyers is a United Church of Christ pastor, syndicated columnist and professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. Books he has written include Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future.

  • Daryl Koehn

    Daryl Koehn is a professor of business ethics and director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic school in Houston. 

  • Charles E. Curran

    Charles E. Curran is the Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He specializes in moral theology, social ethics and the role of the church as a moral and political actor in society. He is a liberal theologian who was dismissed from Catholic University of America for his teachings on human sexuality after an extended struggle, which included meetings with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Curran can also comment on the politics of the papacy.

  • Jack Green Musselman

    Jack Green Musselman directs the Center for Ethics and Leadership at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He says he would like to see more media coverage of the way ethical norms and religious values intersect, overlap and reinforce one another (or fail to) as part of the public debate about morality. 

In the Midwest

  • Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung

    Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is a philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. She is an expert on ethics and has written on virtue and vice. She says organized religion has largely bought into the idea of religion as a private matter – something to be practiced at home and in church, but not necessarily at work. She also faults the way churches market themselves – as cheery places with good friends and coffee that people can opt into or out of.

  • Robert Sirico

    The Rev. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s also a Catholic priest. He has argued that marijuana legalization could lead to some social benefits, like a reduction in illegal drug trafficking.

  • David Solomon

    David Solomon is associate professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University and directs the Center for Ethics and Culture.  Much of his studies involve morals and virtues in the modern day. 

  • Paul Weithman

    Paul Weithman is a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University and the author of Religion and the Obligations of Citizenship.

  • Loyal D. Rue

    Loyal D. Rue is author of By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs (Oxford University Press, 1994) and professor of religion and philosophy at Luther College, an Evangelical Lutheran school in Decorah, Iowa. He says organized religion has lost the moral authority it once had. At the same time, he sees more Americans taking their moral cues more from mass media than from Mass.

In the West

  • Carolyn M. Warner

    Carolyn M. Warner is associate professor of political science at Arizona State University in Tempe, and her research interests include religion, politics, patronage and corruption. 

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Mark D. Roberts is senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, Calif., and author of Dare to Be True: Living in the Freedom of Complete Honesty. He says people separate their religious convictions from their everyday lives, and the challenge for the church is to teach people how to connect them. 

  • John Hospers

    John Hospers is a philosopher, an emeritus professor at the University of Southern California and an editor at Liberty magazine. In 1972, he was the Libertarian Party’s first presidential candidate.

  • S. Cromwell Crawford

    S. Cromwell Crawford is professor and chairman of religion at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is author of The Evolution of Hindu Ethical Ideals (University of Hawaii Press, 1982), has taught a course on ethics in world religions and has written about Hindu ethics and the environment.

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