To get an idea of how the blurring of the lines between religion and politics can cause confusion for both sides of the equation, go back to an obscure television appearance by the Rev. Jerry Falwell just before the war with Iraq started last year.
Falwell once was a powerful political force, helping mobilize what he called the “moral majority” to fuel some of the Republican electoral successes of the 1980s. Now he mostly comes off as a pompous blowhard with diminished clout. On this particular show, he was among a panel of folks from various religious persuasions discussing the morality of the U.S. launching a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.
• stop ignoring America’s dismal human rights record
• stop his support for human rights violations (e.g. America’s use and promotion of the death penalty and America’s use of torture
• stop violating – and fighting against – international law,
• to stop supporting cults and extremist groups such as the Unification Church and the Scientology organization, and to
• stop claiming the alleged support of God as an excuse for furthering his own agenda
At the end of the show, Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic bishop from Detroit and one of the most consistent voices in the peace movement over the past three decades, suggested that the Bush administration may have been lying about parts of the rationale for this war.
“Why, to suggest that my president is a liar is … is … blasphemy,” Falwell sputtered.
The dictionary defines “blasphemy” as “impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things.” Apparently to Falwell, George Bush had become God.
Falwell sank in a pool of bad theology and Bush skillfully wrapped himself in a mantle of divine blessing as he launched the war against Iraq – even if he was a bit shaky on his facts.
Not willing to let go of the image of divine blessing, Vice President Dick Cheney sent out Christmas cards last month featuring this quote from Benjamin Franklin: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” It’s pretty easy to guess which empire Cheney thinks God should be aiding.
All this comes to mind now because we are heading into an election season when the religious views of presidential candidates and the religious views of the voters are under a brighter spotlight than at any time in recent memory.
This past week’s kerfuffle involved Howard Dean’s awkward attempts to start talking about his religious beliefs as he tries to win votes in the South, where the ability to weave together Christianity and politics is a more important electoral skill than in other parts of the country.
I think it’s important that voters understand the values a candidate would bring to public office. So I don’t have any trouble with George Bush or Howard Dean or Joe Lieberman or Wesley Clark talking about how their religious beliefs help shape their views of public issues. In fact, as a journalist, one of my favorite conversations with candidates is to probe the influences that made them who they are today.
The trouble comes when voters make religious beliefs the litmus test or candidates misuse their faith as a tool in their electoral strategy. Part of the genius of this country has been its ability to assimilate people with a wide range of religious beliefs, avoiding the religious wars that marred Europe for centuries or the intolerance of theocratic states today that oppress anyone who varies from the government’s beliefs.
Let me try to draw out a few distinctions that may be helpful in the months ahead.
I’ve got some strongly held religious beliefs that shape my view of the world. They lead me to support public policies that oppose war and terrorism, that favor economic justice, that treat people with dignity no matter their wealth or heritage or sexuality. My particular religious convictions grow out of Christianity, but other people come to public policies from a Jewish or Islamic or humanistic background. Ultimately what matters is the candidates’ position on the issues and their ability to fashion programs that serve a democratic nation. Understanding how they reached those positions is useful for thinking about how they might approach future decisions.
For candidates, having a firm grounding in a philosophy matters because it keeps them from simply being driven by the passions of the moment. A piece of that philosophy may well have to do with their religious beliefs and it’s useful when they let voters know that. But when they start posing for holy pictures – literally – voters ought to bring a good measure of skepticism to what these candidates are doing.
Nothing I have read suggests that there is anything phony about George Bush’s deeply held religious beliefs. But when he starts casting public policy as the will of God, when he starts using religious code phrases to signal evangelical constituencies that he is really their guy in the White House, he is playing politics with his faith.
Nothing I have read suggests that Howard Dean really is a particularly religious person, despite his new-found interest in engaging in God talk. Yet he clearly has been influenced by both Christian and Jewish traditions (he grew up Episcopalian, now belongs to the United Church of Christ and his wife is Jewish). That seems to be one element in his approach to politics, as he poses the question, “Don’t you think this campaign ought to be about evicting the money-changers from the temple?”
What matters in this election, though, is not how well either Bush or Dean knows the Bible or how much they pray. It is how they make decisions and how those decisions will affect the future of this country and the world. To the degree that voters and candidates keep that in mind, the more this election will revolve around public issues and the less it will devolve into a theological battle.
Phil Haslanger is the managing editor of The Capital Times.