A few years ago, I was developing my first graduate thesis on the use of religious rhetoric in political speeches. At the time, Hilary Clinton and John Edwards were holding strong against the new guy from Illinois. The candidates, Democrat and Republican alike, were trying to distance themselves from Evangelical Bushisms while paying due diligence to religious voters. Mike Huckabee was reminding everyone he had once been a Baptist pastor, Mitt Romney was having to defend his LDS heritage (even a polygamist grandfather), Hilary was indirectly brushing off questions about her “very personal faith” and Obama was having to distance himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright and fend off accusations of secretly being a Muslim. What, if anything, was the 2008 election about if not religion? And yet, here we are four years later and not much has changed. Sure, the political field is narrower. That happens when you have an incumbent president. But even as Romney has been picking up nominal Christians, Ron Paul remains in the race trying to take “true” Evangelicals with him – a decision intended to damage Romney more than Obama. Let me be clear from the outset; let me make my thesis as bluntly as possible: We all know this election is about religion. Americans are being asked to define themselves in terms of where they stand on faith, not politics. Put another way, which non-Evangelical “Evangelical” will voters choose come Nov. 6th?
As I type these words, Billy Graham has come out of retirement to announce he will do “all he can” to support Mitt Romney, while another round of “proof” circulates the Internet accusing Pres. Obama of being a “lying Muslim.” The article in questions points to a supposed inscription on Pres. Obama’s wedding band that reads “there is no god but Allah.”
What strikes me as funny, or at least ironic, is that the right-wing voters seeking to prove Obama is not a Christian are the same ones who said Romney wasn’t a Christian four years ago. That may appear to be an incendiary statement except for the fact that, by this kind of “change,” voters have made this election about who we suspect least, and not who we trust more. And, at root, this trust is founded not on who can create a strong economy or develop the best international policy, but it is a trust built on solely on religion.
Thankfully, our generation has grown since the last election. Cameron Strang at Relevant magazine would have you believe differently, that in four years we have become a generation once again disenfranchised with politics. That’s his prerogative. Anything to sell magazines and rally his audience, I suppose, but I at least hope that we are more mature. I hope that we are taking this election seriously and are not lost in the malaise Strang has proposed. And I hold this hope partially because of the diplomacy, honest conversation, and civil dialogue that people like Dr. Richard Mouw, Doug McConnell and so many other members of the Fuller community have engaged in together with those like them outside our sphere who have been doing the same work for years – building bridges between the faiths. People like Karen Armstrong, Krista Tippett, and Stephen Prothero. Each of them are helping us articulate a better way, to make sense of our world theologically as well as culturally and socially. If anything, we are more robust that ever, more prepared to think critically and make an informed choice in alignment with our own religious beliefs. But then, just as we move the conversation forward and begin to say this election is about more than our different faith practices, there is another setback.
Well-intentioned people of faith point the finger of hatred and let loose the vitriol of suspicion and malice. Days ago, Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, along with other fellow Mormons, publically claimed that Romney has “sullied… the face of Mormonism.” Last week’s article by Jerome Corsi on Pres. Obama’s wedding ring presents what are, in my professional opinion, clearly “doctored” photos. It serves not as an honest pursuit of truth but as a play towards demonizing faith groups all over the world. It is a tactic of fear and not progress, one that plays into the deepest fears of people of faith and hints at labels like “Antichrist” and “prophecy.” But Obama is not alone in religious scrutiny.
Time magazine’s Oct. 8 cover story casts a shadow of doubt over the degree to which Mormonism will play a part in Romney’s potential presidency. In the article, Romney is painted as a man built by the views of his religion instead of experience. While writer Jon Meacham argues Romney is mindful of his faith, he reasons that Americans should be more concerned about those groups of zealous LDS members eager to see one of their own finally ascend to power and fulfill Joseph Smith’s messianic “White Horse Prophecy.” The prophecy, in part, claims that Mormons will save the United States at a time when the Constitution will “hang by a thread.” Why is this prophecy important to Time magazine readers if not to greenlight the fear of the apostatic time we live in and hope for a strong savior in a tailored suit? What Meacham failed to mention, in casting suspicion on the Mormon faith and faithful, patriotic LDS members was that the Evangelical community used some of this same behavior and language when they voted for Ronald Reagan. Reagan, as we know, won the presidency from Jimmy Carter, an active Southern Baptist who taught Sunday School while President. Somehow, the Evangelical Right convinced frightened voters that Carter was not, in fact, Christian enough while Reagan, a mediocre Christian, somehow became “one of their own” when prophetic oracles were spoken over him.
While, again, these efforts may be well-intentioned and it is indeed possible to hide behind the legitimacy of truth-seeking and truth-telling, at the end of the day both candidates are men of faith and like most of us, they experience varying degrees of devotion. Like other humans, their expressions of faith have nuances that shape their respective worldviews. Like many of us here at Fuller, their behavior is scrutinized in light of how they interpret a sacred text. And yet, with something as deeply personal as religious faith and expression, is it any wonder that the candidates do not want to be pinned down by their beliefs? Even among polite classmates here at Fuller, I regularly find myself shifting my feet when asked what I believe. In short, I don’t fault the candidates for loving God as they know how, nor do I fault them for celebrating truth where they find it – whether a Christian bumper sticker is attached or not. I’m not voting one candidate over the other because they are Muslim or Mormon or have the blessing of Billy Graham and the Southern Baptist Convention. Is this important? Sure, if you want to be part of that voting bloc, it is. But instead of making straw men of the candidates, maybe we need to examine – really examine, not just pay lip service to it – what, how, and why we believe what we do in our own lives. Whether we live under the Presidency of a Catholic, a Baptist, a Mormon or a Muslim, does it change our religion? Or is that an attempt of fear trying to convince us that our god is the same as our leader?