September 12, 2011

One Nation, Above God?

Religious nut?
There’s something about the combination of politics and religion, that often seems to bring out the worst in people. Just about any time a political candidate begins to talk about his faith, it seems, he is immediately treated with ridicule and suspicion. This seems particularly peculiar, in a country where (depending on who you ask) roughly 84% of us profess to be Christians, and upwards of 90% overall say they believe in God.

Consider the example of candidate John F. Kennedy. As a consequence of his Catholic faith, he was scorned in the press. Many feared that he might become a puppet of Rome, spreading Catholic ideology everywhere. Could he set aside his religious beliefs, long enough to make sound decisions as president?

For all we know, his Democratic opponents Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey -- or his general election opponent Richard Nixon -- just might have been twice as dogmatic and dangerous in their beliefs. But the voters couldn't judge them by that standard, because the candidates didn't talk about it.

In a speech to the Houston Ministerial Association, he attempted to put his Protestant brethren at ease:

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida; the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.

As a man of faith, I couldn’t agree more. And yet with every presidential campaign of recent years, it seems improper for a candidate to be too religious. Or not religious enough. Surely, when we choose the next person to lead the free world, personal character is important. I want to know something about the candidate’s personal life, family, education, and so on. Put all of these ingredients into a big pot and stir, and you’ll have a composite measure of his/her personal character. These are important matters. But how much prying is too much?

I remember the campaign of 2008, where candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith became a bone of contention for many. I saw a press conference where Romney was ambushed with questions about his religion: “Do you believe in polygamy? Do you have the special underwear? Do you believe that men can become gods?”

He didn’t miss a beat: “There are people in the church whose job it is to teach and answer these questions. I’m running for president today.” Perfect.

In a recent debate, it was Michele Bachmann’s turn. She has made no secret of her Christian beliefs, that the Bible is the guide for her life, and that she should (and does) submit to the divinely-ordained authority of her husband. Which incited one reporter to ask, “Does this mean that you will consult your husband before you make any big decisions as president?”

Right-wing losers?
Her answer? “Submission means that I respect my husband. And he respects me.”


This seems like a good time to cite a classic quote from the esteemed Senator Arnold Vinnick (R-CA). Oh, the name doesn’t ring a bell?

In the final season of the NBC drama The West Wing, the young, handsome Democratic congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) ran for president against the seasoned old Vinnick (Alan Alda). Santos was well known for his faith and family values, while Vinnick – despite decades in public life – kept his beliefs to himself. When pressed by reporters as to whether he would accept an invitation to a Christian revival meeting, he stumbled, trying desperately to find the "right" answer, and finally replied:

“Look, guys. When you create a religious test for public office, you’re asking to be lied to.”


The thing is, everyone (including all of the current candidates) believes in something that informs their moral choices. Everyone. It might be Jesus, or Moses, or Zeus, or some abstract impersonal supreme deity, or the Moon God, or the voices in their head, or the cause-and-effect laws of the universe; we're all guided by something outside of ourselves that we consider authoritative. Any candidate who reveals the details of their beliefs, is only inviting an argument. Which only gets them labeled as a fanatic. Which only ruins their chances of getting elected.

Which, I suppose, is the reason why most candidates don’t discuss their religion in the first place. The political landscape is strewn with the bones and carcasses of would-be senators and governors and presidents who proudly preached a politically incorrect orthodoxy. They should have known better.

Candidate Kennedy ended his address with these timeless words:

If I should lose [the election] on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser…

But if, on the other hand, I should win the election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the presidency — practically identical, I might add, to the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can "solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, so help me God.


Incidentally, I find it interesting that this kind of assault only happens to white guys. When Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (that is, men who actually hold themselves out as ministers of the Gospel) sought public office, I don't recall anyone asking about their beliefs, much less arguing with it. Barack Obama spent 20 years sitting at the feet of a preacher who loudly proclaimed his hatred of white folks, yet insisted that he knew nothing about it. Somehow, it seems, people of color are exempt from such scrutiny.

We love to vote for candidates who profess strong morals and family values. We love it when they trot out the wife and kids at every photo-op. We salivate when we watch them attend church and volunteer at the parish bake sale. We're mightily impressed when they receive an endorsement from the exalted Pastor So-And-So. All the right moves.

But if they should ever suggest that they desire to actually practice what they preach? Anathema! We'd rather have a godless hypocrite instead. God help us all.


  1. Obama wasn't scrutinized for his relationship with that pastor? That was big news for weeks.

    I agree with your overall point but would suggest that fair debate, when it comes to political office, should determine a person's sanity and their groundedness. Those who profess religions that a majority of people would describe as extreme or crazy might not be appropriate candidates to lead that majority.

    People should have a chance to prove their sanity and their soundness of judgment without regard to religious belief. Yes. However, when people profess to be guided by those beliefs and those beliefs are extremist, certain questions become inevitable, don't they?

  2. Yes, it was news. But to me it seems dishonest that Mr. O. denied knowing about Wright's caucasian-phobic tendencies. Would any white candidate get off so easy?

    As for extremist views? Just vote for someone else.