Politics has generally been put on hold for Christmas, although some people in the early caucus and primary states might not think so, as they are bombarded with flyers, pamphlets, and phone calls from the various campaigns on an almost daily basis.
The Christmas holiday has served three purposes this year as it relates to the politics. First of all, it provides campaigns, candidates, and voters alike a brief respite from the daily stump speeches, meet-and-greets, interviews, and crowded school gymnasiums. Secondly, it has given pundits and the media a chance to dissect the candidates' Christmas ads, how authentic they are, and how well they connect with voters. And finally, it serves as the impetus of this particular writing: the role of religion in the presidential campaign.
Christmas is obviously a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and is probably the single most important holiday of the year for Christians around the world. However, these candidates' Christmas ads do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they form the latest chapter in a disturbing series of overtures that blur the line between being open about one's faith and overtly trying to appear more religious than one's rivals. And that is very dangerous.
Perhaps the United States has been on this course for years, given the ascendancy of the religious right, composed primarily of conservative evangelical Christians. There have been several high profile cases and news events that have been of the utmost importance to these evangelical voters: assisted suicide, Terri Schiavo, gay marriage bans, and getting closer to overturning Roe vs. Wade due to John Roberts' and Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. The threat from radical Islamic terrorists has also heightened the sense among many people that a religious war between Islam and Christianity is imminent or already upon us. The media have addressed religion in extended documentaries this year, as was done by CNN with its highly acclaimed "God's Warriors."
Faith has played a leading role in the 2008 presidential campaign as well. CNN sponsored two forums on faith and politics earlier this summer in which the Democratic presidential candidates sat down and discussed the role of faith in their lives while taking questions from members of the audience. These forums were roundly criticized as "a sham, a fraud, and a travesty" by National Clergy Council President the Reverend Bob Schenck.
One of the more innovative aspects of this year's presidential campaign so far has been the YouTube debates. These debates gave regular people a means through which they could confront the candidates directly and pose questions to them that pundits and media professionals might not ask. However, one of the questions at the Republican YouTube debate this fall came from a man holding a Bible and asking sternly if the candidates "believed every word in this book."
Mitt Romney has been the source of much scrutiny since the inception of his campaign because of his religion. A Mormon, he is viewed with suspicion by many evangelical Christians who view Mormonism as a cult. Romney has been unfairly dogged by questions about his faith on the campaign trail and has struggled to placate his critics and skeptics. Rival Mike Huckabee helped create more controversy by linking Mormonism to Satan. (He later blamed the media and apologized.) Earlier this month Romney even went so far as to give a speech on how he viewed faith in America. (Click here for an excellent discussion about Mormonism in modern America.)
On the Democratic side, Barack Obama has received a lot of scrutiny from voters who wonder if he is a Muslim. Of course, it didn't help that members of Hillary Clinton's campaign staff were behind a whisper campaign falsely accusing him of being a Muslim who wanted to take down America from within. It also didn't help when esteemed political figures like former Nebraska Senator and Clinton ally Bob Kerrey appealed to voters' fears while disguising his remarks as praise.
And now with the Christmas ads, there's talk about subliminal religious messages, overt religious messages, and cries of upsetting people over innocuous religious messages. (Rowan Williams of The Times of London has a timely reminder that "God is for life, not just for Christmas.")
It seems that religion (read: Christianity) has become the new "support our troops" psychological weapon that Americans are using to impugn the patriotism and character of other Americans. Somehow, if you don't support President Bush's war policies, you "want America to surrender to the terrorists." And now if you don't wear your religion (read: Christian faith) on your sleeve, you "are a God-hating liberal who wants to wants to take God out of the public square." Both of these are obviously ridiculous lines of thinking, but they are quite real. No politician wants to be caught on the wrong side of this divide, so everyone falls over each other in their attempts to out-Christian their rivals. Why else would Rudy Giuliani place such an emphasis on receiving the endorsement of Pat Robertson? Why else would John McCain, who once denounced evangelical leaders as "agents of intolerance," give a commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University? Why else did Romney feel pressured to give that detailed speech on faith earlier this month? (Did the rise of "the legit Christian" Huckabee have anything to do with it?)
I believe the electorate is asking the wrong questions of their presidential candidates, and the media are complicit in their misguidedness. So long as one's faith would not prevent that person from governing effectively, it really shouldn't matter how often a politician goes to church, which church he goes to, or if he even goes to church at all. Voters should look to their pastors, rabbis, imams, and holy books for religious guidance and spiritual comfort. They should look to their elected officials for leadership and wisdom regarding economic, foreign, domestic, and social policy.
It's a travesty that Romney is being penalized for his faith while Huckabee keeps getting distracted by journalists who question the integration of his faith into his campaign. It's a travesty that Democrats are penalized for being perceived as unfriendly towards religion because they do not place issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments at the top of their agenda. And it's a travesty that of all the possible questions CNN's managers could have selected for that YouTube debate, they had to ask a question about how much of the Bible each candidate believed was true.
Lou Dobbs has complained in the past about the influence religion has in American politics. And other people, including conservative Christians, are beginning to become a bit uncomfortable with all this talk about religion as well. Peter Wehner, a former aide to President Bush, recently wrote a column warning Huckabee about the emphasis he has placed on religion in his campaign:
"Invoking one's faith is not unprecedented in American politics and is not, by itself, disconcerting. It can even be reassuring. But it is also fraught with danger. If certain lines -- inherently ambiguous lines--are crossed and faith becomes a tool in a political campaign, it can damage our civic comity and our politics and demean our faith...Dennis Byrne of the Chicago Tribune also has had enough of all this religious talk:
"...[F]or those of us who are Christian, there is an important context to bear in mind: Jesus's entire ministry was directed against the pretensions of earthly power, and Christianity is trans-political, beholden to no party and no ideology. The City of Man and the City of God are different, and we should respect and honor those differences."
"The bigotry of secular purists has created a backlash, and, as is often the case, the backlash goes too far. The moral and religious beliefs of public officials inescapably guide them in their decision-making. It can't and shouldn't be otherwise. And voters have a right to consider what principles guide the candidates in the exercise of their office.Impartial observers abroad may look at this intersection of faith and politics and wonder how we are different from the enemies we are trying to defeat abroad. But it seems that many of us are too blind to consider this and would repudiate such remarks as being anti-American without addressing the actual substance of these remarks.
"But to require a detailed accounting of all those beliefs to see if they conform to a particular sectarian belief goes beyond what a democracy can or should tolerate."
Mike Huckabee in particular should be credited with prompting this discussion--not about faith per se, but about its role in selecting a president. As for his political fortunes, because of how tightly he has woven faith into his campaign, he now runs the risk of being seen as a one-dimensional candidate--the Christian candidate. And that may turn off a lot of moderates and even Democrats who once viewed him as a conservative with a smile.
Religion and faith are hugely important issues. Too bad they seem to be important for all the wrong reasons, at least as far as politics is concerned.