December 14, 2007

Will 'Holly Holy' Become A Campaign Theme Song Next?

For those who long for some of that old-time religion, the presidential primaries have given them a concentrated dose of it. At times, this race has resembled a revival more than a campaign. With even Joe Biden -- Joe Biden! -- quoting lyrics from a spiritual at yesterday's debate, one might wonder who will select Neil Diamond's song about a faith-healer for a campaign theme song, and when.

Charles Krauthammer wonders who will have the guts to end the revival:

Mitt Romney declares, "Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone." Barack Obama opens his speech at his South Carolina Oprah rally with "Giving all praise and honor to God. Look at the day that the Lord has made." Mike Huckabee explains his surge in the polls thus: "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people."

This campaign is knee-deep in religion, and it's only going to get worse. I'd thought that the limits of professed public piety had already been achieved during the Republican CNN-YouTube debate when some squirrelly looking guy held up a Bible and asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?" -- and not one candidate dared reply: None of your damn business.

Instead, Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee bent a knee and tried appeasement with various interpretations of scriptural literalism. The right answer, the only answer, is that the very question is offensive. The Constitution prohibits any religious test for office. And while that proscribes only government action, the law is also meant to be a teacher. In the same way that civil rights laws established not just the legal but also the moral norm that one simply does not discriminate on the basis of race -- changing the practice of one generation and the consciousness of the next -- so the constitutional injunction against religious tests is meant to make citizens understand that such tests are profoundly un-American.

It's not just the Republicans, either. The Democrats have used churches for decades as backdrops for political speeches, especially in the African-American community. Churches themselves have actively pursued politics for both parties, raising money and issuing endorsements.

The increased references to religion from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even Joe Biden come from a recent realization that voters actually do care about religious life in politicians. The most recent Gallup poll revealed that four percent of voters would not vote for a qualified Catholic for President, six percent would oppose a Jew, and 17% would oppose a Mormon. It also showed that 48% would oppose an atheist, and only 46% would consider a candidate without faith for the presidency (six percent apparently are agnostic on the question).

However, Krauthammer rightly says that the rush to religion has gone far enough. The Republican primary risks falling into a theological beauty contest. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney have actual policy positions and track records as governors, something that pundits and the media seem to have forgotten. Neither man is running for Pope -- neither man qualifies, of course -- and the nature of their doctrines matter little in comparison to the nature of those policies they espouse.

All of us have value systems from which we operate, and America has a splendid diversity of them. The shared values we have in the political realm are informed by those in the religious or personal realm, but in the end we judge people on what they do, not which congregation they join. Americans of many faiths and of no faith at all have joined together to extend self-government on the basis of rational decisions about policy for over 200 years, and the President serves all equally.

Let's call off the revival, please, and get back to policy. I know how I see my way to God. I want to know how the candidates see their way to fiscal responsibility, national security, and border control.


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