Campaign Religion

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.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • stutmann9

    I believe when politicians are pure about their religion, not trying to water it down, as in the case of Sarah Palin, who is unapologetic about her beliefs, people will gravitate toward it. In the case of Biden and Pelosi-those who do not place any kind of importance on faith on public life will gravitate towards them.
    It’s tragically comedic that the Democratic party paints itself as the party “Not responsible for our current financial crisis”, when the trail leads to THEIR failed policies in the housing industry in forcing banks to lend to low income people. It’s criminal, in my opinion, what they have done. This has resulted in the near toppling of our economy, why aren’t we holding people responsible for this and penalizing them? Why isn’t anyone looking at the money taken by top Democratic leaders in the Fannie Mae crisis? Chris Dodd and BARACK OBAMA being among the top 3 recipients of massive amounts of money. Why are people leaning towards Obama when he was PART OF the crisis?
    They are the “Teflon” party, refusing to let anything, including their own responsibility for what has happened, stick to them. They ignored President Bush’s pleas for more regulations on Fanni Mae and Freddie Mac several times. They denied that there was even a crisis looming, (to continue to benefit from the financial windfall that was coming their way). They should be held accountable! A Republican President cannot get much done with the disrespect and gridlock of a Democratically controlled Congress. I give President Bush CREDIT for going to work every day facing people who despise him and criticize his every move. The Democrats have alot to learn in the department of WORKING TOGETHER for the GOOD of our country. They don’t deserve the presidency because they have no respect for it, except when THEY are in control.

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  • kent4jmj

    Religion is crucial though I do not think many understand why. Religion is a source of Morality one of many. Politics is about the use of Force. How one uses force is of great interest to most. A Republic has a rule of law that is supposed to be non discriminatory. The Bible and the Church are the clearest and strongest sources for this belief. Even a quick reading of OT and NT shows a real interest in Justice and equal treatment. We are not to show any deference to the rich nor disregard the dignity of the poor.

    Christianity is very concerned with moral principles however man is always tempted by expediency. Some might use terminology like idealism vs. pragmatic. But the important thing is that once you bring morality into the mix a standard is raised to which we all measure up in different degrees. Not a bad thing if one thinks about it.

  • gk

    I am inmpressed that our US Bishops have stepped up on the abortion argument. That was nice and clear and needed.

    I’ll continue to pray for better politicians and leaders in our times. We need them badly.

    This election is a fun one though. A lot is happening. Faith is being talked about. Life issues are being talked about. The economy is on spin cycle to say the least. And there is a lot of comical relief. I will have a great time voting this year. And I am looking forward to the times after the election as well.

    I do wish thought that the political process was cheaper, shorter and more tolerable. And I wish the vote was a popular vote and not an electoral all or nothing thing. If I don’t vote the way the majority of the people in my given state … it means nothing.

  • SolaGratia

    kent4jmj, I am in total agreement with you here! 🙂
    (and stutmann9 as well!)