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Former Divinity Student Coons: Faith Informs Politics

Coons, once a divinity student, says he's reconciled faith and politics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Coons, once a divinity student, says he's reconciled faith and politics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Pope Francis’ focus on issues such as climate change, immigration and economic inequality is being credited with making religion more attractive for progressives around the world.  

But there’s always been room enough in Christianity, Sen. Chris Coons would argue, to balance a life of faith with concerns about the environment and social justice.  

The Delaware Democrat graduated from Yale Divinity School, so, while he’d be the first to admit he may not always be right, he’s spent years poring over scripture in both an academic sense and as a believer.  

Coons knows the progressive/religious divide firsthand. While studying at Yale Divinity School, he was shunned by some of his more liberal and scientifically-inclined colleagues (he too studied chemistry in undergrad).  

It’s an oversight that happens too often, said Coons, who notes that many of history’s greatest scientists were men and women of faith and many of the world’s largest social movements — civil rights, temperance, abolition, labor and others — are rooted in religious movements.  

“I recognize that there is a secular and typically liberal culture that dismisses faith as a legitimate foundation for action,” Coons said. “But I think that is an ahistorical and a minority reading of American history.”  

Coons talked about how opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion often cite the Bible. Coons argues that while some Scriptures can be parsed to oppose homosexuality, a broader, contextual reading suggests it’s not so clear cut.  

“If you only take one or two sentences, here or there, out of a very complex body of work, you can make it stand for just about anything,” Coons said. “The clarity with which the Bible speaks to a prohibition on homosexuality is no stronger or clearer than its prohibition on profanity, blasphemy, gossiping, greed — and to the best of my knowledge we have not recently stoned anyone for those four things.”  

Coons also sees ambiguity in the abortion debate. He is pro-choice and says the Bible overwhelmingly focuses on justice and tolerance.  

“If you’re not spending at least some time thinking about economic justice and inclusion of the outsider and how we treat the marginalized, then you’re missing the core message,” Coons said. “And if we spend all of our time fighting over two things — abortion and gay marriage — we are not spending our time worrying about the things that I believe the Gospel message principally calls us to worry about.”  

Coons likened the difference in scriptural interpretations to those of constitutional interpretations, which plays out prominently in disputes over the Second Amendment, for example.  

One side argues that a word’s a word, while the other focuses on broader context, where interpretations may evolve over time. And in between those poles? A world of opinions.  

“If a fundamental purpose was the advancement of individual liberty against government control and we can’t articulate a reason the institution of marriage has to be between a man and a woman as opposed [same-sex marriage], and there’s no compelling state interest that we can defensibly and permanently recognize, evolving standards make it possible to recognize a new definition,” Coons argued. But for all of his theological training, Coons gladly offers that he may be wrong. (Editorial note: While Coons spoke at length about religion when prompted by CQ Roll Call, it’s generally not something he leads with.)  

“Humility, I think, is a touchstone for anybody who tries to be in public life and yet a faithful religionist,” Coons says. “I don’t have firm, complete final confidence that I really understand what God would have me do exactly. And I think it would be arrogant of me to suggest that I do.”  

Prior to delivering his speech on the Iran deal in early September, he wrestled with which Biblical passage to cite in support of his position. Beforehand, he consulted with a rabbi friend, who cautioned him against his initial choice, because Coons’ interpretation was open for debate.  

Coons argues that while much of the country’s criminal code is rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s not the exclusive source and many of the same conclusions about right and wrong can be reached by ethical reasoning and “what’s best for human society.”  

Coons’ reliance on his personal faith is not uncommon among his colleagues on the Hill.  

Prayer often precedes decisions. Nearly a third of the Senate regularly attends Bible study with Chaplain Barry C. Black. Many others choose to worship in their own way or practice different faiths.  

Just before recess, Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., held an event explaining how Christian beliefs guided their views on criminal justice reform. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., cited Scripture to support Mississippi changing its flag.  

But Coons knows that he is a faithful man in a world of varied and wide-ranging beliefs.  

“What I think is worthy of humility and continued examination and public engagement is: How do I do my job as a senator in a secular democracy, where the input and the priorities and the values of Delawareans, who are urging certain actions, but cite ethics or common sense rather than a faith tradition,” Coons said. “How do I make sure that I’m valuing and including those perspectives every bit as much as those that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition?”

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