Religion and the White House

Gordon C. Stewart          Feb. 14, 2012

Is the religion of presidential candidates off limits?

President Obama’s remarks at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast and Mitt Romney’s statement about the poor and the wealthy resurrect a question regarded since 1960 as off the table.

The religious issue in 1960 was the Roman Catholicism of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No Roman Catholic had ever been elected President. The question was whether a faithful Catholic would be subservient to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, in matters of state. Finally the question was put to Kennedy himself.

Since that time, with the exception of conservative fundamentalist Christians, American culture has increasingly accepted the separation of one’s religion from one’s politics. Religious faith is regarded as private; political beliefs are public.

The old adage that the way to best assure civil tranquility is to steer clear of religion, sex, and politics is good advice at family reunions and the like, but does it serve the public interests of an informed electorate in a democratic republic?

It should not go unnoticed that then-candidate Obama’s faith was brought into the national spotlight when his political opposition sought to paint Mr. Obama as un-American because of comments made by pastor Jeremiah Wright.

The unspoken journalistic rule that “religion is off-the-table” was set aside by ABC’s investigative reporting into 500 hours of sermon tapes by Mr. Obama’s pastor and its decision to air a one-minute excerpt from one of Mr. Wright’s sermons.

It made no difference that the sermon from which the excerpt came was biblically-based and in the bold African-American preaching tradition of Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Howard Thurman that thunders the Hebrew prophet’s voice in scripture as it apply to today’s news. Nor did it matter that the statement about the chicken’s coming home to roost on 9/11 came after a long recitation of the history of American violence at home and abroad. Mr. Obama’s religion was on the table.

The public wanted to know. Was the President a Christian? Or was he, as some of his opponents claimed or insinuated, a Marxist, a secret Muslim, or un-American?

Mr. Obama eventually denounced the excerpt from Rev. Wright’s sermon, resigned from the church, and used the controversy to spell out his own views in a brilliant speech in Philadelphia on race in America called “A More Perfect Union.”

So here we are in 2012.

Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), a Mormon. His statement about the very poor, the middle class, and the wealthy became the center of media controversy. “I’m in this race, he told CNN following his primary victory in Florida, “because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the  90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” To be fair, his statement, like the Rev. Wright’s ignoried his earlier remarks. Nevertheless, the statement deserved careful scrutiny.

At the same time, President Obama’s religion was in the news again because of heavy criticism for connecting his faith with his public policies at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast  where he described his motivation as “living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need.”  “These values,” he said, “they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.”

In doing so, Mr. Obama voiced a conviction central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The belief goes to the heart of the Christian faith – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in which Jesus tells his listeners that, if they want to know where to find “the Son of Man,” they will find him among the poor and destitute (Matthew 25:31-4.).”Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Mr. Obama’s view came under attack from a number of quarters. One response came in the Washington Times with the headline “President Obama misrepresents the teachings of Jesus at National Prayer Breakfast,” arguing that “Jesus did not teach that wealthy people should give more money to the government or charity than others should.” And on CNN on-line, the public comments re: the President’s position ran heavily against his view.

At the same time, Mitt Romney’s stock was rising. So is his religion. Years ago Leo Tolstoy asked the American Ambassador to Russia about the new religion in America, the Ambassador pleaded ignorance, Tolstoy described Mormonism as “the quintessentially American religion” that would one day catch fire and be unstoppable.

Is religion on the table or off the table in 2012? If it’s on the table for discussion, as in Mr. Obama’s Prayer Breakfast statement, the question about the “quintessentially American religion” should also be on the table. How would Mr. Romney’s religious views affect his public policy decisions? What difference would it make to his conduct of foreign policy that his religion is American-centric, believing that “Christ  appeared in the western hemisphere between his resurrection and ascension to heaven; that the State of Missouri is the site of the Garden of Eden as well as the site where Jesus will return at the Second Coming? “For this and other reasons, including a belief by many Mormons in American exceptionalism, Molly Worthen speculates that this may be why Leo Tolstoy described Mormonism as the “quintessential ‘American religion'” (Wikipedia).

One does not need to be a partisan opponent or a despiser of religion to ask whether a candidate for the Presidency believes that America is sacred, God’s chosen people, and if so, what the implications are for how he would use American power and influence in a world that is always just one step away from nuclear holocaust.

It was the pernicious idea of American exemption from the way of the nations that got us into Iraq, and it is the rejection of that idea that has allowed us to begin to pull back into a more humble and realistic way of being America. The idea of American exceptionalism is widespread across party and religious lines in America, and, most sadly, an electorate that fears the future may fall for whichever candidate continues the illusion that America is God.

If I could ask one question to those who aspire to the White House, I would ask them to reflect, line by line, on the Clifford Bax’s hymn (1919):

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”

Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one:
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky,
Peals forth in joy man’s old undaunted cry—
“Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one!”

Melody from The Genevan Psalter

 

 

“It’s not easy being real”

Last night I listened to President Obama’s speech on contraception and religion institutionso courtesy of Unedited Politics. I then looked to see if there were comments. There was only one:

“This has nothing to do with so called women’s health, it’s Marxism 101.”

With no elaboration as to how or why the President’s speech or position on women’s health care, on the one hand, and religious liberty, on the other, was Marxism 101, the comment accomplished what such comments nearly always do, until they are challenged. It called someone by a name. End of discussion. No need to explain how or why it’s Marxism. “Bad! Boogie Man! Evil in the White House!! The Marxists are out to get us!”? So I wrote my own comment:

Oh, my! Dear friend, whoever you are, you must never have taken Marxism 101. This isn’t Marxism. It’s the work of a democratic republic – messy, balancing values that sometimes conflict with each other, protecting the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority, and guaranteeing equal protection (in this case, health coverage) to all citizens. It’s comments like this – confusing a health care position with Marxism (i.e. communism?) – that divert the discussion and take us back to the darkest time of American history, the Senate Hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy that painted decent, patriotic Americans as evil. The President is NOT a Marxist, my friend. Time to rescind the comment for the sake of civil discussion that helps to solve real problems.

The reply came soon after:

Try reading his books and consider the fact that he attended a Marxist church for 20 years.

Again, I replied:

I’ve read Marx. I spent the summer of 1966 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Chicago Ambassador of the Experiment in International Living. I lived with the Schulz family, all members of the Communist Party. Marxism is more than a figment of my imagination. And the church Obama attended is a CHRISTIAN Church, United Church of Christ, one of America’s historic “mainline” denominations. ABC watched 500 sermon videos and chose to air a one-minute clip from a sermon on one of the Hebrew prophets that led viewers to conclude Jeremiah Wright was a communist. Radical? Yes. Off the wall? Sometimes. But Marxist (i.e. not Christian, not a disciple of the Jesus who turned over the money-changers tables)? No. And to talk about this President as a Marxist is…go back and watch Joe Welsh’s final rebuke to the character assassination campaign of Sen. Joe McCarthy: “Have you no decency, Sir. Have you no decency left?” Please think twice before raising McCarthy’s ghost. It’s ugly.

In 1966 I was certain that my finalist interview with the selection committee of the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living had disqualified me as a candidate as Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia for the summer of ’66.

“You’re a Christian and a seminarian, asked Paul Harvey. “Why would you want to go to a communist country?”  I responded at some length that I didn’t trust the stereotypical representations of Eastern Bloc countries any more than I would trust their representations of the West. I felt there was propoganda on both sides of the Cold War. I wanted to see for myself.   I also told them that there was a theologian in Czechoslovakia named Josef Hromadka, the father of Christian-Marxist dialogue. I had been reading Hromadka and others and wanted to participate in this discussion. I believed that the Marxist classless society was a rendition of the central biblical message of the Kingdom of God. I came out of the interview and said to another candidate, “Well, I just eliminated myself. Hope you have a great summer.”

To my surprise, they selected me. The generosity of Pan Schultz and Pani Schultzova, their son Vlado and daughter Jana who welcomed me like a member of their own family, conversations with students about Franz Kafka and the existentialists at the university coffee shop, and the ugliness of fellow-American Ambassadors (there were 11 of us) who insisted on ice cubes in their drinks combined to further open the aperture of my camera lens as I look at the world.

I decided long ago not to keep silent when the labels like “Marxism 101” march across the field of my camera. My experience is only mine, but it’s the only experience I have, and God knows how limited it is. But, I decided to to heed Frederich Buechner  counsel – “Listen to your life”, he wrote – and to speak out loud what I see and hear, hoping and praying, as I do every Sunday morning before I dare to preach, that in some inscrutable way, “the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts will be pleasing in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.”  I’d love to hear your meditations. Leave comment to share.