Saturday, May 31, 2008

Born-again secularists - US elections 2008: Could we be witnessing the end of political pandering on religion?

by Dan Kennedy

via NSS Newsline 30/5/08


May 27, 2008 7:00 PM

And so it came to pass that a trinity of presidential candidates sought to sway the multitudes with their professions of godly piety. And, verily, they were humbled for their arrogance, each in his own way.

Maybe it's too much to hope for, but could we be witnessing the end of political pandering on religion? At the very least, we've seen that trying to persuade voters that you're on intimate terms with the Big Guy isn't nearly as risk-free as has been generally supposed.

Leaving aside Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister who got about as far as could be expected (that is, not very),

three serious contenders held their hands over the burning bush during this campaign. Each came away seriously singed.

The last shall be first, so I'll start with John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, whose come-to-Jesus moment arrived late last week. McCain had sought to rectify a perceived weakness - his evident secular orientation - by obtaining the endorsement of two rather exotic specimens in the religious right's bestiary, the Revs. John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Given that McCain had alienated some evangelical voters eight years ago by accurately describing the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance", McCain's move was seen as a necessary if distasteful exercise in reaching out to the Republican base.

But then Hagee and Parsley went off, as such types often do. We learned from Hagee that Adolf Hitler was an agent of God, sent to earth to exterminate six million Jews and thus hasten the founding of the state of Israel. We learned from Parsley that the United States had been created, in part, to destroy Islam. And, finally, we learned from McCain - praise the Lord! - that he no longer counts Hagee and Parsley among his supporters. Fortunately for McCain, the headlines were few, as his revelation coincided with Hillary Clinton's idle musings about Robert Kennedy's assassination.

Of course,

the Democrats' all-but-official nominee, Barack Obama, had his own religious come-uppance earlier this spring when his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, revealed himself to be an egomaniacal ranter
whose signature phrase - "God damn America!" - will be heard at least as often as "Yes we can!" right up until Election Day.

After weeks of dithering, Obama finally climbed down from the cross and crucified Wright. But Obama today is a seriously weakened candidate, and his long association with Wright has more to do with that than anything either Hillary or Bill Clinton has said. Democrats who had been salivating over the prospect of having a nominee, at long last, who is at ease when talking about his faith are now left to ponder the old maxim of having gotten what they wished for.

Finally, consider Mitt Romney, who last December delivered a nationally televised address about his Mormonism. Romney's speech was compared in some circles to John Kennedy's 1960 appearance before a Protestant ministers group in Houston. But whereas Kennedy made essentially a secular appeal - assuring the ministers, and the country, that his Catholicism wouldn't interfere with his ability to govern - Romney took the opposite route. (Note: I am not related to John Kennedy.)

The gospel according to Mitt was that Mormonism is an awful lot like evangelical Christianity, especially of the sort practiced by Republican caucus-goers and primary voters. The evangelicals were having none of it, and Romney - having indulged in outright bigotry against non-believers, as David Brooks of the New York Times observed - could not credibly demand that others not engage in anti-Mormon bigotry. Romney faded away, though he's now back in full pander mode, trying to push McCain into making him his running mate.

The original sin in this long, unedifying religious drama may have taken place in 1976. That's when Jimmy Carter, the first self-proclaimed born-again candidate to run for president, told an interviewer that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times". Carter was trying to make a rather sophisticated theological point, but he'd have been better off keeping his mouth shut. Since then, we've suffered through everything from Ronald Reagan's embrace of the religious right, to Al Gore's claim that he often asked himself "What would Jesus do?", to George Bush's identifying "Christ" as his favourite political philosopher. Enough.

Religion is a matter of faith and belief, and few expressions of religiosity make sense outside the community of fellow-believers. Consider that the idea of a first-century Jew's being executed to expiate the sins of the world, and then coming back to life three days later, would not make an awful lot of sense if it were introduced to voters as new information in the midst of a presidential campaign.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," John Kennedy said nearly 48 years ago. That belief is starting to look more sensible with each passing day.

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