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.”
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