I recently engaged in a debate with Rick Frea at his conservative-leaning blog Freadom Nation about the importance of religion and church attendance as they relate to the presidency. Frea lamented in a post called "A secular president" that:
"It appears Mr. Obama is more concerned about himself than his God. No surprise here."This post was his reaction to a recent story in Politico about how Barack Obama had not attended church since winning the election and cited his desire not to create a distraction for the church members who may not be accustomed to all the media attention he would inevitably bring with him as the reason for his nonattendance. According to an Obama aide:
"Because they have a great deal of respect for places of worship, they do not want to draw unwelcome or inappropriate attention to a church not used to the attention their attendance would draw."The story also notes that he has used his Sundays to work out at the gym and that "Obama was an infrequent churchgoer on the campaign trail, though he did make a series of appearances in the pews and pulpits of South Carolina churches ahead of that heavily religious state's primary."
In my discussion with Frea, I argued that Obama's church attendance should be secondary to his executive responsibilities and that ardent churchgoers can still be failed presidents. Frea argued that it was important for Obama to set the appropriate moral compass for the nation to follow. After reaching an impasse in our discussion, he wrote a second and much longer post about religion, God, and the presidency. He argued that Obama may have feigned his church attendance during the campaign for political reasons and feared what would happen "if the secularists--of the Obama ilk--ever gained control of this country." I did not respond to this post, but a few other conservatives did and expressed their agreement with Frea.
I thought that this discussion aptly encapsulates one of the major problems Republicans have going forward in this new political landscape. In light of Obama's decisive electoral victory, the states he was able to turn blue, and the demographic groups he was able to win, it suggests that traditional conservative arguments may need to be retooled in order to help Republicans compete in a changing America.
It seems that we may have entered a new era in which voters no longer look to the President of the United States to set a moral standard. And if they do, it is no longer as paramount. That which we can do as average people may no longer be a disqualifying factor for our nation's president as far as the majority of the electorate is concerned.
The president needs to be smart, pragmatic, intellectually curious, thoughtful, and meticulous. The president's policies need to keep this nation safe and prosperous. While we certainly do not want a president who embarrasses our nation through his moral shortcomings, voters may have also realized that a president is not necessarily poor if the way he expresses his personal faith and values differs from our own.
Many voters harshly criticized Bill Clinton for his sexual and ethical transgressions while he was president. Social conservatives in particular said his transgressions were particularly troubling because their children looked up to the president whose job it was to set the standard for others to follow. As a response to this, one of George W. Bush's greatest applause lines during the 2000 campaign was his vow to "restore honor and dignity to the White House." This was code for "I will not be unfaithful to my wife and I will run a much more ethical administration than President Playboy."
Of course, Bill Clinton went to church regularly. But that did not stop him from engaging in his rendezvous with Monica Lewinsky and subsequently embarrassing the nation. And even though his personal approval ratings were in the cellar, Clinton left the White House as a popular president.
To his credit, George W. Bush was indeed loyal to his wife and a strong family man. He also went to church regularly. But nobody cares about that because their pensions are gone, jobs are being lost, the treasury is empty, and our respect among other nations has been lost.
This is where conservatives, particularly social and religious conservatives, risk dragging the Republican Party into the ditch. They place more of an emphasis on the president's duty to do things that any parent can do more effectively and less of an emphasis on the president's unique powers to improve the lives of many.
Parents don't manage trillion-dollar budgets, meet foreign dignitaries, appoint ambassadors and envoys, and negotiate international treaties. That's why we have presidents. We don't have presidents so they can go to church because anybody can do that. The worker at the GM plant in Akron, Ohio, probably cares a lot more about his own job security than the fact that Barack Obama has not attended church recently.
If going to church is all it takes for a president to be successful, then these conservatives should be prepared to explain why the churchgoing George W. Bush is so roundly disliked. They should be prepared to explain why Mike Huckabee did not win the Republican nomination. They should be prepared to explain why they hate Bill Clinton so much.
Democrats, liberals, and moderates generally realize that one's religious practices don't matter so much. These voters are less likely to attend church regularly and are more accepting of those who don't go to church at all. There are undoubtedly many people who voted for Obama and attend church weekly. But while they may personally wish that Obama went to church more often, they are probably more interested in how he will spend the billions of dollars in the next economic bailout than how he spent his last Sunday morning. For Republicans and conservatives to be so consumed with his church attendance, it suggests that they are increasingly out of touch with the electorate and that they have not yet learned the lessons of the last election.
One of these lessons from 2008 is that cultural wedge issues are losing their potency:
1. Barack Obama's middle name was initially considered a liability for the Obama campaign, but it turned into an asset in that Republicans often used it to drum up fears about Obama at McCain-Palin campaign events only to have it blow up in their faces by turning off the nonconverted and portraying Republicans as negative nativists.
2. The rumor campaign suggesting Obama was a Muslim was designed to scare the electorate into thinking that Obama was not "like them." (As a side note, why would a secret Muslim be going to church anyway?) But voters knew Obama was a Christian, Obama did an excellent job of reminding voters of this fact, and Colin Powell, who endorsed him shortly before the election, took things a step further by saying it shouldn't matter even if Obama were a Muslim. Republicans tried to force a debate about religion when the electorate wanted a debate about the economy.
3. North Carolina's Elizabeth Dole tried to paint her opponent Kay Hagan as an atheist who took "godless money" at a fundraiser. She lost her race for reelection and did so by a larger margin than John McCain in a state that hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1976. Dole was repudiated by North Carolinians for engaging in religious tribalism. They knew Hagan was an elder at her Presbyterian church and they resented the implication that Hagan somehow had atheistic sentiments.
4. Gay marriage bans were on the ballot in several states. While gay rights advocates were largely discouraged by the results of these ballot referenda, the referenda themselves did not translate into an advantage for conservatives at the polls like they did in 2004 (e.g., Ohio and John Kerry). California's Proposition 8 was defeated by a far narrower margin than it was the last time it was on the ballot and Obama still won the state decisively. And gay antipathy wasn't enough to deliver Florida for John McCain, a state with a popular Republican governor that George Bush won twice.
Until Republicans find a way to make their policies relevant to people's lives, they will continue to languish in the political wilderness. Barack Obama's church attendance is not relevant to people's lives. It is odd that conservative Republicans look to the president to do things that they can do for themselves (e.g., set a moral standard) even though they claim, as conservatives, that government should have a smaller role in our lives. In addition to a broader electorate that is placing an increasingly smaller emphasis on these social wedge issues, this conservative contradiction when it comes to the promotion of morality is what makes their concerns about Obama's church attendance sound so frivolous.
Republican politicians would be wise to follow Frea's suggestion to me that we simply agree to disagree because their continued focus on these kinds of issues does not play beyond their shrinking base. In the end, parents set the example for their children to follow, not the president. And while religious practices may make someone a good man, they have very little to do with making someone a good president. And after the failed Bush presidency, Americans are really looking for a good president now. This is not to say that Obama will be this good president. But it will take far more than church attendance to make the majority of voters automatically disqualify him.