Friday, April 25, 2008


Presidential religiosity

A column by Joan Smith in Britain's Independent draws some interesting contrasts among the Presidential candidates' vaunted—and in the case of the Democrats, flaunted—religiosity.

John McCain

Last weekend, as Clinton and Obama shamelessly vied for evangelical votes at a Christian forum in Pennsylvania, McCain was absent, underlining the fact that he doesn't do God – not in public, at any rate. In a campaign notable for the nauseating religiosity of the other candidates, McCain had the guts to turn down an invitation to speak at the forum, saying that his religious faith was intense but private. Like the protagonist of Richard North Patterson's latest novel, The Race – a war hero whose experience of captivity bears a striking resemblance to the torture McCain endured in Vietnam – McCain simply doesn't feel comfortable talking about his relationship with Jesus.

This has infuriated religious conservatives, who have been engaging in hilarious discussions on websites about whether McCain is entitled to attend a Baptist church when he hasn't undergone a full-scale emersion; Southern Baptists like to see everyone get in the tank and McCain's failure to get water-logged has fuelled suspicions that he's still an Episcopalian. They're hoping that the Senator will be forced to do a U-turn and speak openly about his faith before the election in November, contrasting his silence unfavourably with the extravagant expressions of faith made by both Democratic hopefuls.

Smith, who found herself on a cruise to the Galapagos Islands with John McCain in 2001, shows that she hasn't been paying enough attention to the Democratic contenders when she writes—

Incredible as it seems, with a hugely unpopular evangelical President in the White House, this time it's the Democrats who have got God, and they go on about it at a length which would have British audiences screaming for the sick bag.

Sadly, there is no evidence for the theory put forward by worried Democrats that either candidate's religious fervour is tactical.

Ya gotta be kidding! If Hillary Clinton isn't engaged in a tactical move every moment of her waking day, I'll eat her Bible.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton of late seems intent on proving that she can be as stupid, bellicose and arrogant as George Bush. And I, for one, believe her. As with George, her right-wing evangelicism helps to provide the justification and cover.

Democratic worries over "values" voters have been making the news ever since the 2000 election. But like George, Hillary has been way ahead in her planning—

When Clinton published her autobiography, Living History, five years ago, she included a picture of herself with her "prayer group" enjoying a "cookout" in 1993. That was the year, according to the radical magazine Mother Jones, in which Clinton became "an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship", a network of political, business and military leaders dedicated to "spiritual war" on behalf of Christ.

Warlike metaphors pop up in her rhetoric, such as the occasion last summer when she attended a forum hosted by an evangelical Christian group called the Sojourners and was asked how her faith had helped her get through the scandal caused by her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Without missing a beat, Clinton was off, thanking "people whom I knew who were literally praying for me in prayer chains, who were prayer warriors for me".

Notions of sin, struggle and redemption inform her language to an extraordinary degree, prompting her to write about a post-Lewinsky "prayer breakfast" with religious leaders at the White House, at which her husband "offered an emotional admission of his sins and a plea for forgiveness from the American people".

Barack Obama

Smith doesn't find much difference between Clinton and Obama—

Democrats who dislike this stuff as much as I do can't take much comfort from Obama, who asked a church audience in Bible-Belt South Carolina to help him become an "instrument of God" and join him in creating "a Kingdom right here on earth".
This is pretty mild stuff. Perhaps to buttress her case, Smith gets a bit off topic by rehashing the controversy over Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Wright—
In recent weeks, Obama has tried to distance himself from a controversial black pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright Jr, whose divisive views about race have been given a wide airing; the candidate is visibly irritated these days by suggestions that Wright was his mentor.

But the fact remains that the pastor officiated at Obama's wedding and it was in his Trinity United Church of Christ on the Southside of Chicago that Obama, once a sceptic like his parents, committed himself to God in the 1980s: "Kneeling beneath that cross on the Southside, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth".

Smith, obviously quite secular herself, betrays an ignorance of the stark differences among American Protestants when she remarks —

This is the kind of stuff right-wing Christians hope to hear when they claim that American voters "want a sense of where someone stands in their relationship with the Lord".

What right-wing Christians hope to hear are stances against abortion, gays, and Muslims. And if they're of the evangelical persuasian a little anti-Catholic sentiment would be the cherry on the froth. On the "positive" side they want to hear support for government-funded church schools and the abolition of any remaining barriers between (their) church and the state.

Christo-Republicans are perfectly capable of drawing a distinction between a white prayer warrior and someone who's been steeped in the tenets of black liberation theology while lounging in the pew. Obama will disappoint them no matter how many times he recounts his experience of salvation.

Nevertheless, Smith's point—that there's an unseemly protestation of religious sentiment by both Democrats—is correct. It shouldn't be forgotten that Obama selected Chicago's largest and most politically active Black congregation as his church home—unlikely a pure happenstance for a person wanting to be President since the age of 5.1

Smith returns to McCain—

Against this background, McCain's refusal to give in to evangelical bullying is refreshing: "I think it's something between me and my creator. It's primarily a private issue rather than a public one," he told an interviewer last year.

It says something about the current state of US politics that the only Presidential candidate who is willing to uphold the separation between church and state is a Republican, and the choice between two supposedly radical politicians who don't appear to understand its importance is no choice at all. The Democrats are letting down millions of people who are secular if not actually agnostic, all of whom have votes even if they make less noise than the religious right. I'm not quite rooting for McCain, but I've had more than enough of Clinton and Obama banging on about their imaginary friends.

It isn't the imaginary friends of Clinton and Obama who trouble me so much as the real friends of all three, though the friends of McCain and Clinton are easily the more worrisome. As for McCain, we may yet see him on his knees. I certainly hope so.

Related posts
Dominionism and the Yurica Report (7/24/04)
John Edwards on the proper relationship between religion and government (8/5/07)
Crisis of the Day: Penis theft (4/23/08)



1I agree with the intelligent but mad "Spengler," who argues that Obama's viewpoint is more anthropological than religious—

He [Obama] has the empathetic skill set of an anthropologist who lives with his subjects, learns their language, and elicits their hopes and fears while remaining at emotional distance. That is, he is the political equivalent of a sociopath. The difference is that he is practicing not on a primitive tribe but on the population of the United States.

Of course if we follow "Spengler's" logic we must conclude that anthropologists are sociopaths with a bent for science. Whether true or not, studying the people you're trying to persuade is hardly unique to Obama. He just seems a bit more talented at it than Hillary or McCain, which suggests that he might also be more effective as a leader.

As for the groups under study, with respect to religion the distinction between a primitive tribe and the population of the United States is subtle at best. [back]

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