Scratch the surface of American politics and there’s a good chance religion will bubble up. That’s a bitter pill for secularists to swallow and for the rest of us a mixed blessing at best. But whether pill or blessing, it’s a fact. The current presidential campaign has gone overboard to demonstrate that.
Consider just a few of the religious highs — or lows, if you prefer — of the past year.
The Democratic party consciously and deliberately set out to shed its image as the party of unbelief. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competed to see who could declare more hearty allegiance to Social Gospel Protestantism — without budging on his or her pro-choice commitments, of course.
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, declared America a Christian nation and campaigned on that assumption. Meantime Mitt Romney found himself compelled to give a speech defending his right as a Mormon to run for president.
Both Obama and John McCain suffered public embarrassment produced by controversial remarks by religious supporters. Remember Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Father Michael Pfleger, and Pastor John Hagee? Yet like moths drawn to a flame, the two candidates nevertheless presented themselves to be grilled at a pre-convention forum organized by televangelist Rick Warren.
For a while Catholics seemed hesitant about joining the fun. Lately, though, they’ve jumped into the seething religion and politics stew with both feet.
The catalyst for this development was supplied by two Democratic big names who claim lifelong membership in the Church. Strange to say, both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joseph Biden, Obama’s running-mate, imprudently took to “Meet the Press” to tell the world that they know more about Catholic doctrine on abortion and other life issues than the Magisterium does.
The hierarchy’s response to this, as predictable as it was justified, was to come down on Biden and Pelosi like a magisterial ton of bricks. Now the bishops’ conference now says it will discuss “the practical and pastoral implications of political support for abortion” at its meeting scheduled for Baltimore a week after the election. They’ve done that before, but without visible effect.
As if all this weren’t enough, there’s Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice-presidential choice, baptized a Catholic, who now describes herself as a “bible-believing Christian.” The Alaska governor has been praised and derided for her support of creationism and other fundamentalist doctrines, as well as for her admirably strong commitment to unborn human life.
For all anyone knows, there may be more religion still to come in this weird campaign. But already it’s fair to ask-from the perspective of faith, not secularism-whether so much religion talk is desirable. The answer, as you might expect, is yes and no.
It’s good to the extent that it reflects the enduring vitality of religion in American public life. With the possible exception of Romney and his Mormonism, the fascination with religion in this campaign hasn’t amounted to a religious test for public office. Rather, it’s largely proceeded from a sensible desire to know where candidates stand on basic matters of faith and morality — not for theological reasons but as an index of character and a potential indicator of policies they’d pursue if elected.
But this front-and-center role for religion in electoral politics also has been bad precisely to the extent that it’s been accompanied by displays of bigotry, confusion, and-in the case of secular media especially-a seemingly bottomless ignorance about all things religious. Perhaps the bishops will talk about that next month too. They should.
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