With God on their side

by
03 January 2008

On the eve of the crucial New Hampshire primary, Douglas LeBlanc looks at the part religion is playing in the choice of the next US President

Presidential candidates: left to right: Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee with his wife Janet

Presidential candidates: left to right: Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee with his wife Janet

THE late sociologist Peter Berger once observed that, if Indians are the most religious people in the world, and if Swiss are the least religious, the United States is a nation of Indians governed by Swedes.

Yet Americans expect their presidents to show some respect for faith, even if they do not attend church regularly. “These days, presidential candidates are required to wear their religion on their sleeve,” complained one commentator, Michael Kinsley, in Time magazine.

If Americans have been put off by the piety of President George W. Bush, a United Methodist who enjoys generally warm relations with conservative Evangelical Protestants, you would never guess it from the leading candidates in the 2008 presidential election.

In June last year, Democratic candidates gathered in Washington for a debate sponsored by CNN and featuring questions from Evangelicals such as Jim Wallis, who emphasises the social-justice aspects of his Christianity.

Hillary Clinton, a lifelong United Methodist, said, to applause, that she comes “from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves”.

Hillary Clinton, a lifelong United Methodist, said, to applause, that she comes “from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves”.

Later that month, Barack Obama, addressing a national convention of the United Church of Christ, said that “the so-called leaders of the Christian Right” have been “all too eager to exploit what divides us”. Mr Obama, an adult convert to Christianity, attends Trinity United Church of Christ, an “unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian” congregation on the south side of Chicago.

Later that month, Barack Obama, addressing a national convention of the United Church of Christ, said that “the so-called leaders of the Christian Right” have been “all too eager to exploit what divides us”. Mr Obama, an adult convert to Christianity, attends Trinity United Church of Christ, an “unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian” congregation on the south side of Chicago.

“At every opportunity,” said Mr Obama, the religious Right “has told Evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer, and Intelligent Design.”

The other leading candidate, John Edwards, is a former Baptist, now a Methodist. He is generally reticent about his faith, but has spoken about how his faith helped him cope with the death of his son in a car accident 11 years ago.

The most theologically liberal Church represented among the Democratic candidates is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Its adherent Mike Gravel, a former senator, has never risen above single digits in the polls.

WHILE Democrats find a new confidence in speaking openly of their faith, Republicans have taken a few decades of comfort with religious speech into a place of open conflict with one another.

Dr James Dobson, founder of the conservative Evangelical group Focus on the Family, has said he will not support the former New York City Mayor Rudoph Giuliani — a thrice-married, pro-choice Roman Catholic — even if he won the party’s nomination. And he has indicated his lack of enthusiasm for John McCain and Fred Thompson.

By contrast, Mitt Romney, who is a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has gained endorsements from the fundamentalist powerhouse Bob Jones III, the Melkite Greek Catholic Paul Weyrich, who helped to found the lobbying organisation Moral Majority, and the one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, a former Presbyterian, who became a Roman Catholic in 2003.

Still, Mr Romney’s faith is a point of anxiety for Christians who are troubled by the Mormon emphasis on continuing revelation, eternal marriage and procreation, and “exaltation”, the teaching that human beings can, in the afterlife, become as God once was.

Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister, drew protests when he asked a writer for The New York Times Sunday magazine whether the Mormons taught that Jesus and Satan were brothers. They do in fact teach that, as “offspring of our heavenly father”, Jesus and Satan were “spirit brothers”. They also stress, however, that these two beings moved in decidedly different spiritual directions.

As Mr Huckabee’s poll numbers climbed in Iowa, Mr Romney gave a long-awaited speech on religion in America. He pledged that leaders of his Church would not dictate his policy were he to be elected; but he also emphasised that liberty and religion were inextricably linked. Sceptics protested that the speech expressed inadequate respect for the right of Americans to hold no religious convictions.

Republican bickering about religion reached a low point in the days before Christmas. A TV advertisement by Mr Huckabee showed him in a red sweater with the shelving of a white bookcase behind him. As the camera panned and Mr Huckabee spoke openly about the birth of Jesus Christ, the shelves appeared to form a cross behind his right shoulder. Pundits debated whether the candidate was engaging in “subliminal advertising”.

Congressman Ron Paul, a lower-tier Republican candidate who has previously run for President on the libertarian ticket, said that the Huckabee advertisement reminded him of Sinclair Lewis’s prediction that fascism would come to America “wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross”.

The results of the Iowa caucases were announced early this morning. For the Repupublicans, Mike Huckabee won, beating Mitt Romney into second place. For the Democrats, Barack Obama won the vote, followed by John Edwards. Hillary Clinton was third.

 


 

Congressman Ron Paul, a lower-tier Republican candidate who has previously run for President on the libertarian ticket, said that the Huckabee advertisement reminded him of Sinclair Lewis’s prediction that fascism would come to America “wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross”.

The results of the Iowa caucases were announced early this morning. For the Repupublicans, Mike Huckabee won, beating Mitt Romney into second place. For the Democrats, Barack Obama won the vote, followed by John Edwards. Hillary Clinton was third.

 


 

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