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In the 2012 race for the White House, is religion fair game?

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Is there not something missing in a complete divorce between religion and politics?

Is religion fair game in the campaign for the White House —and in American electoral politics generally?

Consider Paul Tillich’s phenomenological definition of religion as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.”

The question put to John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960 about his Roman Catholic faith led to a long period when a line was drawn between a candidate’s “religion” and politics. Religion was a private matter; politics was a public matter. Aside from the occasional story about church attendance and Jimmy Carter’s statement about lusting in his heart, religion in the White House and in American public life was considered off the table of public scrutiny.

Questions about candidate Barack Obama’s religion in the campaign leading to the 2008 election changed that. The attacks came from two sides. One attack alleged that Obama was a secret Muslim; the other doubted the genuineness of his Christian faith and insinuating that he was a secret Marxist. After the one-minute excerpt from one of Rev. Wright’s long sermons went viral on the Internet and on the evening news, the question was whether Obama agreed with Wright that on 9/11 “the chickens had come home to roost.”

Religion had suddenly re-appeared from the shadows of American public life. The Obama campaign stumbled at the development but quickly recovered when the candidate dissociated himself from Wright’s views and effectively articulated his own to the satisfaction of the American people, followed by a masterful speech in Philadelphia about race in America.

In the 2012 campaign for the White House, do we consider religion as fair game for the public’s right to know, or are we better advised to return to the 48 year hiatus between 1960 and 2008?

Mitt Romney is a Mormon, a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS). One can argue that his religion should not be a factor in voter decision-making. The distaste of the impugning of John F. Kennedy’s fitness for office led, in part, to the hands-off position we saw for so many years. Religion in American public life is regarded as a question of one’s preference — like one’s preference for cuisine. It’s a matter of personal taste. Religion is about opinion, not truth or reality itself; one person’s opinion is as good as another.

Tolerance is the glue in America

For some of us, all that matters is that a person be “religious,” while, for others, religious adherence represents a failure of intelligence. But for all of us in America, tolerance is the virtue that glues together a pluralistic democratic republic. We are not a theocracy. We are a pluralist society where personal freedom is honored, especially in religion.

Is there not, however, something missing in a complete divorce between religion and politics? More than that, the idea of the divorce is based on a shallow definition of religion as a professed creed rather than beliefs one practices daily in personal and public life.

There is an underlying “civil religion,” as Robert Bellah described it, which binds Americans together. At the core of it is the conviction, spoken and unspoken, that the United States of America is the exception to the way of history: the rising and falling of nations. We are proud people. We love our country. Whether or not it is spoken aloud, the ideas of the chosen people and the city set on a hill – a peculiar nation with a manifest destiny to bring light to the rest of the world – are the central belief of American civil religion. It is a peculiar, unexamined and mostly un-articulated ripoff of the biblical call to Abraham. The allusions to it are mostly between the lines. Sometimes, as in electoral campaigns, it is actually said out loud, and in such times we get to ask whether that is what we Americans really believe about ourselves, about other nations, and about God.

Exceptionalism as rationale

Listen to politicians. The idea of American exceptionalism runs like the mighty Mississippi through the justifications and rationales for American religious, economic and military expansionism from the earliest days of westward expansion to the “pre-emptive war” in Iraq and the effort to bring democracy to the Middle East. Anyone who disagrees is a pagan, part of an Axis of Evil.

The subtle and not so-subtle synthesis of religion and politics that comprises American civil religion has always been a fact of the American ethos. In that sense, religion is always at work in American public life. The only question is whether we are willing to re-examine what we believe as a people.

It is not just agnostics or atheists who take offense at this marriage between religion and politics, the divine and the human, the divine and the chosen people. For Jews, Christians and Muslims the idea of national exceptionalism lifts the nation to the place of an idol of worship that usurps the mystery and majesty of God and the universality of the Creator’s love.

Institutional religion and the American civil religion alike inform, shape, and sometimes determine how a candidate will exercise the duties of elected office.

The real question

Romney, a Mormon, and Obama, a Christian, will represent their parties on the November ballot. The question for the American electorate is not whether the candidate is Mormon, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or none of the above. The question is how the candidate’s religious beliefs inform how he will conduct domestic and foreign policy in a world increasingly suspicious of America’s belief in its unique divine call and destiny. The Oval office is where those dreaded decisions are often made.

Obama has discussed publicly how his faith plays itself out in public policy. Romney has yet to discuss with the American people how his deepest beliefs will inform the exercise of his duties of office, should he be elected President in November. The closest one gets to hearing or seeing his core beliefs are the frequent moments when Romney deflects a question by proclaiming how great a country this is and telling us how much he loves it. Which may be a clue to what he most deeply believes. We won’t know until we ask.

Nothing better fits the ideology of American exceptionalism than Mormonism, an American-centric religion that sees the Americas as the geographical center of history itself: The location of humanity’s origin in a real Garden of Eden alleged to have been in the State of Missouri and the place where Christ will come again at the Second Coming. Human history – from the beginning to the end – is a peculiarly American story. America is Alpha and Omega, holy ground in a profane world. Such a view explains, in part, why the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. It puts in the open the unspoken doctrine of America’s civil religion that sees America as God’s chosen people.

America as the center worries others

A great fear of people from other nations and cultures is whether the American people will elect whichever candidate for the U.S. presidency shouts “Yes” the loudest. Galileo challenged the anthropocentric belief that the sun revolved around the Earth. The church found him guilty of heresy. The question now is whether we will continue to believe the myth that the world and the universe itself revolve around America. Every four years we Americans have the opportunity to reflect critically on what we do and do not want to say about ourselves, our neighbors, and the Divine.

A thoughtful, vigorous debate, led by a dogged free press, offers the best hope for an electorate prepared to meet the complex challenges of the world in the 21st century. The world is watching, and the planet itself is waiting to see what ultimately grasps us and “qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.”

Religion, in this broader phenomenological sense, is not only fair game. It is the game.

Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He writes “Views from the Edge: Social Commentary with Gordon C. Stewart.”


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/05/2012 - 08:21 am.

    No offense Reverand

    but you’ve overlooked the obvious.

    This nation was founded on the principle of religious liberty. The Declaration of Independence mentions God four times and describes the uniqueness of America in that, unlike Europe, where power flows from God to the Throne to the People, in America “we are endowed by our Creator” … power flows from God to the people and then to government.

    The issue of religion in this campaign hasn’t been about whether the Mormon practice of tithing is one this society should consider adopting (“If 10% is good enough for God it should be good enough for government.” – Romney gave $4 million to the church last year) or whether Obama’s connection to black liberation theology and its demand for “social justice” is compatible with a free society. No, it’s been more basic than that.

    When Paul Ryan reminded us in his acceptance speech that “our rights come from God,” leftwing websites and TV talking heads took issue with that. Some even expressed outrage as if they’ve never read the Declaration. They insisted that our rights come not from God but from Government!

    And as if to formalize their party’s transition to secular humanism this week, we’ve learned that the democrats have removed any mention of God from their party platform.

    So the discussion of religion IS fair game in this election, but not in the minutiae that you suggest, but whether the majority of the citizenry even understands that our founding was based on religious liberty and inalienable rights and is codified in the Constitution that exists to protect them, because frankly, Reverand, I’m beginning to doubt it.

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 09/05/2012 - 09:34 am.

      Reply to Dennis

      Dennis, Thank you for taking the time to comment. As often happens in replies to pieces such as this, the real point gets ignored or pushed to the side by what the commenter believes the piece SHOULD HAVE have been about. This piece offers a phenomenological definition of religion (Paul Tillich) that seeks to look beneath the various credal statements (professed belief) to the core convictions that function beneath conscious commitment and that pervade American culture, religion, and society. There is no reference in your reply to the centerpiece of today’s post, namely, the doctine of American exceptionalism. I must say, Dennis, this is NOT “minutia” – it’s central.

      Religion is now and will be on the table in this election on the issues you mention. But the American idol will, I dare say, NOT be on the table. It will own the table. Every discussion, every debate will appeal to this underlying belief in America as the exception to the nations. It’s regarded as too sacred to touch. And THAT’S when something becomes ‘God (i.e the Ultimate).

      I solicit your comment on the subject of this piece and hope that others will join in engaging the argument itself. Thanks for considering. Gordon

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/05/2012 - 09:36 am.

      Right and wrong

      You do have a point, Mr. Tester. However, it’s too specific.

      The nation wasn’t founded on God in a religious sense, it was founded on the concept that certain rights were inherent in each individual person and not granted by a government. While, at the time, it was politically dangerous to concede that women and blacks were people, too, it probably was the intent that those individuals eventually be covered. The wording of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence was very carefully crafted.

      But not so carefully crafted as to indicate that the founding fathers were aware that at some point, Americans would cling to the word God in the founding documents as though they meant something other than a generic indicator of a higher power. At that time, the word God was used in official documentation to lend weight to the words. It was a tradition that the founding fathers borrowed from old Europe, but in Europe, they actually intended to call upon God. Not good ol’ America, though. It’s important to note though, that while “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” were used often in legal documents in Europe, only the word God was used in the Declaration, and not at all in the Constitution. In fact, the Declaration specifically says “Nature’s God” and “their Creator,” not just plain God or THE Creator (or “our Creator” as you incorrectly quote). Very clearly, the founding fathers intended a true freedom of religion.

      Nor are the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence intended to grant ALL rights to the people, only certain “inalienable” rights. Specifically, as outlined in the Declaration, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the Constitution, specific rights are outlined in the Bill of Rights and later Amendments. Liberty is not an anarchic concept in the Constitution, and the Declaration has no power of law (that whole pursuit of happiness thing is not without limits). Rather, the Declaration points out why independence must be achieved for the colonies–that is because the king refuses to both abide by and allow laws to be made as appropriate for the colonists. The Constitution points out that there are certain things that the government must do, regardless of individual liberties. So, the modern Tea Partyists have it all wrong. They remember the taxation part, but not the purpose. A good, careful, and honest read of the entirety of the Constitution might help. Or not.

      To the point, though… Religion is fair game to a certain degree. I don’t think that simply being from or adhering to one religion or another should be up for scrutiny, as was shamefully done with regard to Obama to play on the post-9/11 fears of Americans (there’s a special place in Hell for whoever decided to put that front and center). But as the Reverend points out, it is very relevant to think about what role religion plays in a leader’s decision-making. The fact that Romney is very active, to the point of having a leadership role in the Mormon church, makes me uncomfortable. It is not merely having faith at that point, it is carrying out the mission of the church. Whatever the religion, a president with the goal of carrying out the mission of any church is incompatible with the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, the document that every president is sworn to execute.

      • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 09/05/2012 - 10:50 am.

        Thanks for well-informed response to Dennis

        Rachel, your comment is so clear and well-grounded in the history fo the republic, differentiating between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well the use of “Nature’s God” as opposed to the European precedent of the rinitarian formula.

        I would add here that the founding fathers were horrified by the early American attempt at theocracy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony: the trial and banishment of Mrs. Ann Hutchinson as “a woman not fit for our society” (she later co-founded Rhode Island with Roger Williams as a place of religious freedom), the execution of Mary Dyer and the Salem Witch Trials. That history was very much in the hearts and minds of the framers of the Constitution. They were seeking to insure the right of conscience and the right to practice one’s religion. They were also intent on insuring that no religion would “establish” itself as the state religion.

        There remains the main point of the published piece re: the belief in American exceptionalism. I invite you to chime in on that, Rachel. Can you imagine the host of one of the national debates asking the candidates whether they believe that America is the chosen people, an exception to the rest of the family of nations? And can anyone imagine for even a split second that a candidate who said s/he did NOT, would be elected to office? It’s too sacred to touch., It IS at the center of American religion and American politics.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/05/2012 - 10:00 am.

    Rights from God?It’s a

    Rights from God?

    It’s a meaningless platitude because your rights around the world depend very much on where you live and the governing forms that exist there. Somalia, France, Afghanistan, Spain, North Korea, Sweden, Nigeria, Russia, US, all exist under an omnipotent God, yet all have different rights based on who is running the government in a particular country. So the government does determine what rights its citizens have or don’t have. And oddly enough, the set-up in almost every country is justified as “God-given” (even in “godless” countries like North Korea, the rights of the people flow from the “quasi-gods” of the worshiped ruling family).

    In fact, claiming the favor of God has lead to some of the most outrageous misdeeds in history–past, present and yet to come.

    That is why the appropriation of God (“taking God’s name in vain”) should make everyone closely examine the agenda and purpose of the persons or party who claims God’s favor.

    People want cookbooks for their lives. In the Christian tradition, the Bible is that cookbook. However, it turns out to be a very strange cookbook whereby the parables of Jesus say that God’s will is not always achieved through the most straight-forward ways, and that those who claim to understand God’s will are often the one who are proved to not know.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/05/2012 - 10:05 am.

    Freedom of Religion?

    By the way, there is a question that has puzzled me with respect to post-humus baptism practiced by Mormons.

    If a person believes that it is their right and duty to convert you to their religion, whether you are living or dead, do they truly believe in the “freedom of religion”?

  4. Submitted by Sara Fleets on 09/05/2012 - 03:47 pm.

    Rights From God

    I have faith in God. I work at a Christian church. That is important to me. But, that is not important to everyone. Nor does everyone believe there “is” a God. I have always struggled with the Christian belief that only particular Christians are worthy, etc. There simply isn’t just one “way”.

    There are faith stories and beliefs that help shape some peoples values. Human decency shapes others values. I want candidates who have decent values regardless of where they come from – candidates who do the right thing.

    Our rights come from functioning as a democratic society. I want to see government work on the realities of our country not on some peoples’ belief in God.

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