Jewish Journal

Too-bright spotlight on religion marks Presidential bids

by James D. Besser

Posted on May. 31, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney

Should candidates for the White House have to pass a religious test? The Constitution says no, but increasingly American political culture says otherwise.

The excessive focus on religion is already evident in the early days of the 2008 presidential race. That's bad news for the Jews who, for all the talk of Judeo-Christian values, don't meet the religious benchmarks of those who have set themselves up as the political judges of a nation they still insist is a Christian one.

You don't need to dig very deep to find examples of this partisan piety. It's not as prominent on the Democratic side, because the party's liberal base generally draws from faith groups that do not like to make a big production of religion in politics.

Still, most of the Democratic contenders are already working steadily to establish their religious credentials, anticipating faith-based attacks from the eventual Republican nominee in next year's general election.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) sometimes talks like a church vestry member; Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has appeared behind high-profile pulpits and has frequently invoked his Christianity. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) offered a public prayer for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre "in Christ's name" -- not a mortal sin but hardly typical talk for a liberal Democrat running for president.

The faith-based politicking is far more intense in the Republican realm, where the evangelical vote will play a key, and perhaps, decisive role in 2008 and where a handful of key Christian leaders have become religious kingmakers.

The arbiters of political piety, such as Focus on the Family leader Dr. James Dobson, appear willing to judge candidates not just on the issues but on whether they are sufficiently Christian. That was the case earlier this year when Dobson seemed to dismiss a possible campaign by former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) by telling U.S. News and World Report that "I don't think he's a Christian."

Thompson is, in fact, a Christian, but some evangelical leaders imply you're not a real Christian unless you subscribe to their particular version of the religion and to their political theology, as well.

At the same time, Dobson gave his tacit blessing to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who came on the Focus on the Family radio program, confessed his adultery and sought Dobson's absolution. He got it. Dobson, so critical of former President Bill Clinton's infidelity, apparently had more Christian charity for Gingrich.

You'd think that double standard would turn Dobson into a political joke, but it hasn't. On the contrary, Republican candidates continue to court him and his fellow Christian right political leaders with a desperation that speaks to their huge influence in American politics.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once described the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance" and said that close ties to religious right leaders were hurting GOP interests, is now fervently courting those same leaders. Gingrich, widely thought to be just biding his time before tossing his hat in the presidential ring, recently gave a speech at Falwell's Liberty University that was more sermon than political pitch, attacking a "growing culture of radical secularism [that] declares that the nation cannot publicly profess the truths on which it was founded."

Last month, evangelical activist Bill Keller told 2.4 million subscribers to his e-mail list that "if you vote for [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!"

It's not just the religious conservatives who are bashing Romney not for his political views -- which, after all, are hard to pin down, since they change from minute to minute -- but for his faith.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, in a debate on politics and religion, said "as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway."

Huh? Does that mean Mormon's don't really believe in God or the right one, anyway? Sure sounds like it.

The Romney situation is shocking both for the openness of the sectarian attacks against him and for his defensive reaction as he tries to show he's as much a conservative Christian as the Dobsons and Pat Robertsons.

Most other Republicans are responding similarly, as religion takes on a greater political role than ever in 2008 -- not just a generic faith perspective based on the core values most major religions share but a kind of "I'm more Christian than the other guy" competition.

In 2000, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sharply criticized Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, for his frequent references to his religious faith on the campaign trail.

Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, wasn't trying to convert anyone or say his religion trumped others, but the ADL rightly argued that when religion becomes just another campaign talking point, it both debases faith and leads to the use of religious tests and benchmarks in the political process.

That, the ADL argued, undermines American democracy and our tradition of religious tolerance. But as the 2008 elections move into high gear, it is evident most politicians have not gotten the memo.

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