At the nexus of religion and politics

Here we have a more 19th-century understanding of the relationship between faith and politics...

A column in The Wall Street Journal this morning notes:

A hypothetical Martian with a deep interest in America’s political and cultural history would be surprised and perhaps amused at the religious composition of those running in the current presidential campaign.

The incumbent president is an adult convert to Christianity after being raised by a mother he has described as agnostic but interested in many faiths. His opponent is a Mormon, a faith tradition entirely indigenous to America and less than two centuries old. As for the two vice-presidential candidates, both are Catholic. This is the first presidential election in American history in which neither of the two presidential candidates or vice-presidential candidates was brought up as a Protestant…

I sort of knew all that, of course, but hadn’t put it together that way. And so it is that Protestant hegemony in American politics passes away, almost unnoticed.

After a review of times, especially the 19th century, when such would have been unthinkable, and some discussion of our growing secularism, the author concludes:

The eyes of all are still upon America, but it is a markedly different place. As the secularization of that city upon a hill continues, it is not hard to imagine a presidential race one day that involves candidates who practice no religion at all.

I’m not sure how to put this in a morally defensible way, since there is no way I can truly know the content or quality of another man’s soul, but… I’m wondering just how big a departure from the past that would be.

Let me just put it in generalities… Generally, I seldom believe that national politicians are as interested in religion as they let on to be. They are after all men, and occasionally, women of the world, not given to extended periods of contemplation. The world is so much with them that their pieties have a sort of formalism about them. Not that they’re lying or being hypocritical, just that… they’re more like, “Going to church is something you do, so I go to church.”

There are exceptions. Jimmy Carter was serious about his faith. I think Paul Ryan is, even though I think he’s really confused as to what “subsidiarity” means (which isn’t something most Catholics sit up nights thinking about, frankly). Rick Santorum is. I suppose, just on the basis of the time he’s put in, that Mitt Romney is, although I confess to such a lack of understanding of Mormonism that I’m not qualified to tell.

I think Joe Biden is sincerely Catholic, in the way of cultural, cradle Catholicism. It goes well with his hail-fellow-well-met manner, reminding me for some reason of the Belloc quote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine.” It sets him apart from gray-faced Calvinists, I think. And I think he truly cares, in a Catholic way, about the common folk from which he keeps telling us he springs, which speaks to the warm, human side of theology.

Barack Obama? I don’t know what to think, except to take him at his word about his faith. His adoption of Christianity as an adult is so tied in with his deliberate self-invention from being an unrooted child of uncertain identity that it’s hard to grab hold of (in one way — in another, I sort of identify with his journey). But I’ll put it this way, meaning no judgment of anything I have no right to judge: If asked to describe him, “religious” would not be one of the first words I mentioned — whereas with Jimmy Carter, and maybe Rick Santorum, it would be.

The president’s relationship with religion is of a sort that the more aggressively secular legions of his party can be more comfortable with, whereas one gathers that Jimmy Carter’s piety sort of gave them the willies.

Don’t know where I’m going with this; I just thought I’d toss those thoughts out there…

13 thoughts on “At the nexus of religion and politics

  1. Karen McLeod

    As a firm believer in a good God, and a practicing Christian, I wish that our candidates would keep pronuncements about their faith to themselves unless specifically asked. Let their acts proclaim their belief, instead of belieing their faith statements.

  2. Brad

    I’ll add that as Catholics, Biden and Ryan have followed paths that enabled them to reconcile their faith with their politics — Biden by way of the heart, and Ryan by way of the head. (What I mean is that Biden is more of a touchy-feely Catholic; Ryan is more in a Doctors of the Church, intellectualized mode.)

    Again, of course, I’m going by their public expressions…

  3. Doug Ross

    My gut tells me Mitt Romney is as committed to his religious beliefs as Jimmy Carter was. I would imagine it has played as large (or larger) role in his life than most people.

    I find it unfortunate that if Obama has strong Christian beliefs that he came to later in life, that he wouldn’t be more willing to share those beliefs openly and regularly. I can’t help but think that there is some degree of political calculation that goes into any statements he makes regarding religion. He’s serving under the Constitution that guarantees freedom OF religion not freedom FROM religion. He should feel free to express what he believes.

  4. Rose

    @Karen – I feel exactly the same way. Religion isn’t the same thing as faith. Politicians of all ilks strike me as religious but not of deep faith. An unexamined faith is a poor one.

  5. bud

    Religious intolerance is the last vestige of acceptable discrimination. While it is possible that a woman, Hispanic or even a Mormon may become POTUS in the near future there is no chance that an atheist will be so elected.

  6. Brad

    On the one hand, I tend to disagree in principle with my friends who want religion kept out of politics. I see no reason whatsoever why faith should be placed in a ghetto, sequestered from other areas of human experience, in our public life.

    But in practice…

    If I were a candidate, I would be very reluctant to talk about MY faith. It would even offend me to be asked.

    The thing is, assuming I were asked by people who wanted to hear expressions of orthodoxy from me, I could honestly give them the answers they seek. But it would still bug me that they’d ASK me to.

    Also, I’m uncomfortable with the rhetoric of such people. In my own thoughts, I don’t use the language that they use. Obama manages to bring himself to say “that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and Savior.” But it would be hard for me to say those words on demand. It’s not that I don’t believe them. It’s that those are not the words I would use. Those are other people’s words, phrased according to a faith tradition that differs, at least rhetorically, from the one I embrace. And frankly, they feel to me like formal words that don’t express deepest meanings. They’ve been said too many times, and too cheaply. It’s too pat. In a political context it would be a pat phrase, not a cry from the heart.

    And most of all, there’s the fact that I couldn’t possibly say those words without it sounding like I’m saying them only because that’s what the hearers want to hear. And if fact that WOULD be what I was doing, and it would really eat at my conscience, feeling that I was exploiting God.

    I think I’d be inclined to say, “Look, I’m Catholic. I say the creed every week at Mass. Go look it up. I’m not going to stand here and trot Jesus out like an organ-grinder’s monkey for you to applaud.”

    Of course, I probably wouldn’t get elected, but hey, this wouldn’t be the only reason, I’m sure…

  7. Phillip

    The funniest thing about the article is the very opening line.

    Don’t you think an alien being (assuming he/she/it was capable of interplanetary travel/observation) would be just plain “amused” at religious beliefs on Earth, period? Fascinated probably, yes, in a kind of detached horror at the way this species has divided itself up and even killed each other at times all because group A believes this set of completely unprovable hypotheses and group B believes this other set, and group C another, etc. etc. etc.

    One human religion compared with another would all seem about the same to a Martian.

    Oddly enough, I kind of agree with you about Obama, that “religious” is not the first word that comes to mind with him. And re Doug’s comment, there may well have been a political calculation involved. But doesn’t that argue against this WSJ author’s point, about the so-called “secularization” of the country? Wake me up when an avowed agnostic (not even an atheist like Rep. Pete Stark of California, just a mild agnostic) can seriously contend for the Presidency.

    Seeing the title of the book this columnist has authored, it all seems to be part of the tiresome “woe on us oppressed Christians in the USA” along with its accompanying memes, the so-called War on Christmas, etc. etc.

  8. Phillip

    Oh, and incidentally, I have to admit that “religious” is not the first word that would come to my mind when I hear the name “Rick Santorum.”

  9. Brad

    Which is probably the nicest thing you’ve said lately about religion…

    Back to that column, it cites the figure that 20 percent of Americans are not religiously affiliated.

    That made headlines recently, and I wondered why. It was played as though we were supposed to think, “Wow, we’re really getting secular.”

    Hey, to ME, “affiliated” means you actually GO to church each week — or synagogue or what have you. And I would submit that far fewer than 80 percent of Americans do that…

  10. Brad

    OK, I looked it up, and Gallup says 41 percent of Americans attend church regularly.

    Seems like “attend regularly” would sort of be minimum threshold for saying you’re “affiliated” with something. Don’t you think?

    I mean, say you’re in the Boy Scouts, or the PTA. If you don’t go to the meetings any more, wouldn’t you say that you’re no longer actually affiliated?

  11. tired old man

    The NEXT oddest thing is that this is the first presidential election in which each of the candidate’s grandfathers were polygamists!

  12. obiewankenobie

    “I suppose, just on the basis of the time he’s put in, that Mitt Romney is [serious about his faith], although I confess to such a lack of understanding of Mormonism that I’m not qualified to tell.”

    Too easy. Mormons are secret Indians/Native Americans, who are in turn secret Jews. The wily kabal lives on! Bwahahaha.

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