Monday, March 05, 2012

The Nominees and Religion

There is no other Western nation in which a political candidate’s religion is as important as it is in America. It’s strange. I don’t think America is really that religious a nation. In public surveys twice as many Americans say they have attended church in the past week than citizens of other nations do, but deeper research says that attendance rates are only half what people claim. So America is no more religious than most Western nations, at least if attendance is considered a valuable measure (and I think it is), so why do they lie about it? One possibility, put forward by those studying the phenomenon, is that people lie to pollsters about socially desirable behavior, and if they consider church attendance to be socially desirable, then they’re likely to say they do it, even if they don’t.

It also seems to be an issue in picking leaders, more for Republicans, than Democrats, perhaps, but being a good Christian seems to be a desirable trait in leadership candidates in America as a whole; certainly more so than anywhere else (the Vatican notwithstanding). So how do the candidates stack up?

Mitt Romney

Should Romney win the nomination, he will be the first Mormon candidate put forward by a major party. Not as important as being the first black nominee, but interesting nevertheless. So far all of America’s presidents have been Protestant Christians, except Kennedy, who was Catholic.

One question that has dogged him is whether or not Mormons are even Christians? It hasn’t been directly addressed too often out of a misplaced sense of politeness. As if to raise the question were to be intolerant. Now I don’t think that his Mormonism should stand in the way of elected office, and I am very much opposed to some of the darker sniping that is directed towards Mormons as a whole, but I am going to come right out and say what most Christians privately acknowledge: Mormons are not Christians.

Yes, they’re good people. Yes, some Christians would be better Christians if they behaved more like them. And, yes, Romney may even make a good president. But Mormonism’s teachings are just too far off the doctrinal map. For example, even though Christians are described as joint heirs with Christ, we are not going to go on to become gods of our own worlds. That may strike some people as an obscure point, but it’s exactly the sort of belief that stands between Mormonism and Christianity and between Romney and the wholehearted support of his party.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum

Trailing Romney for the Republican nomination are two Catholics, Gingrich and Santorum. Of the two Santorum’s religiosity is taken more seriously. Gingrich became a Catholic because his third wife is one. She is described as a very serious Catholic, but she was also his mistress during his second marriage and no one who has known Gingrich for any length of time seems to think the conversion has made any change in him at all.

Santorum’s religious bona fides have not been questioned, but he recently raised some strange questions himself in his attack on the only Catholic to become president. Many Americans were concerned that a Catholic president would follow the instructions of the Pope, that a vote for a Catholic would put America under the rule of a foreign power. Kennedy assured them that this was not true. That his government’s policies would not be mandated by religious doctrine and that, should he ever find himself in a position where he was forced to choose between his religious beliefs and the American constitution, he would resign from office rather than compromise America’s religious freedom.

Santorum has repudiated Kennedy’s stand, going as far as to say it makes him sick. Does that mean a vote for Santorum is a vote for the Vatican? It’s not a question that is going to be seriously addressed, of course. Both Gingrich and Santorum are still seen as spoilers and so not given the same amount of scrutiny as Romney. It is interesting to note, however, that a prominent Evangelical leader recently referred to Santorum as a “man of faith.” Not a Christian, a man of faith; a broad term that could encompass a broad range of religious backgrounds.

Ron Paul and Barack Obama

That leaves one more Republican nominee and the Democratic nominee.

Religion has never played a prominent role in Paul’s campaign, but he is a conservative Baptist. That might surprise some who see him as a libertarian first, but American libertarianism is a mixed bag when it comes to interpreting what Libertarianism means (and that seems appropriate). In an interview with Christianity Today Paul discussed his interpretation and revealed that his libertarianism is really a very traditional anti-federalism. He is not opposed to governments making laws governing our behaviour, per se; he is opposed to the federal government doing so. As positions go, it’s a fairly common one amongst the religious right and one that can be traced back to the federal government dismantling the Jim Crow laws in the 50s and 60s and to the Civil War before that (yes, seriously).

So why isn’t he a stronger candidate? Because he is a fringe candidate, a boutique candidate, if you will, running a campaign in which values are promoted ahead of winning, and as commendable as that might be, in order for the religious right to have an influence over the future of the party, they have to back a winner. Paul won’t be that man.

That leaves the Democratic nominee, the incumbent president, Barack Obama. Obama was not raised in a religious family. His father came from a Muslim family, but was an avowed Atheist. Obama started to come to church as a young community worker, attending the same services as the people around him. Not a very dramatic conversion, but it is how most people pick a church. You know people. They go to church. You join them. This is why a Christian’s witness is so important.

The church he attended was a politically active, predominantly black church and that activism was used as a wedge issue to paint both Obama and the church’s leadership as radicals. Obama left the church as a result. Beneath the politics, however, was a church organized on traditional Congregationalist lines. Congregationalism, as an organization hasn’t been a force in the US for more than a century, but the nation’s Puritan founders gave rise to the Congregationalists, who believed in putting power in the hands of the laity and not the clergy. So Obama not only came to church in the most conventional way, he joined a church linked to America’s beginnings. Since leaving it, however, he has not found a new church home. Like most Americans he does not attend church regularly.

You might think this is a strength for him, he is the candidate Americans are most likely to see themselves in, but if attendance is a desirable factor, then it is not likely to help him. You want the candidate to be the person you want to be. But whether religion helps him or not, he is considered the candidate most likely to win.

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