I ought to make this clear at the outset: I do not participate in politics. As an article of my faith, I do not vote in elections.
OK, that said, I have found the discussions concerning Senator Barrack Obama and his pastor Mr. Jeremiah Wright absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. Some of the commentary has been simply crazy, and some of it has been sharply insightful. As usual, I believe that James Taranto is as sharp as ever in his “Best of the Web” commentary at the WSJ’s online Opinion Journal, and Peggy Noonan’s recent article about how Mr. Wright’s words do not bother her are an interesting perspective (with dash of “adult” words here and there, so be forewarned).
But one of the thoughts that has fascinated me is a question that seems to be coming up more in this election than in other recent elections: Does a presidential candidate’s religion have any legitimate impact on how fit he is for the job? And the related but not identical question: Should voters consider a presidential candidate’s religion in their decision?
Senator Obama is currently suffering under a burden of associations between him and the views of his long time pastor, Mr. Wright. Governor Mitt Romney was compelled to take great pains to address the effect that his Mormon faith had on the way it influenced voters’ perception of him. Much ado was made by many concerning the fundamentalist-styled beliefs of former pastor Mike Huckabee. Many are beginning to discuss more and more whether or not it would be a concern if a President of the United States were an atheist or a follower of Islam — with some, perhaps, feeling confusedly guilty when the thought of such possibilities causes them concern.
Are the religions of our politicians legitimate areas of concern for voters?
I think that if the word “religion” is to mean anything at all, then it must be something worth knowing, discussing, and debating in trying to understand a person. A real religion (as opposed to a “religious label,” which is essentially meaningless) is intimately connected with one’s worldview — indeed, part and parcel of the source of that worldview. In many ways, it is not possible to separate the consideration of a person’s religious convictions from his “secular” convictions, because convictions are virtually always religious in nature. For a man to hold a great number of deeply believed convictions that were at odds with his religion — how much sense would that make?
(Of course, by “religion” I speak here of a man’s true, chosen faith, and not of the religion he attaches his name to when the lights are on and attendance is being taken in the pews. In this light, Mr. Tony Blair would have been considered a “Catholic” for quite some time as opposed to being a “recent convert.” A man in this world may , for example, be simultaneously Jewish and an atheistic Darwinist. Here, “Jewish” describes his cultural background, perhaps, but his religion would be one of Naturalism or Darwinism.)
I would think that if a man’s religion is one deeply believed in and sincerely retained, then the tenets, doctrines, practices, and goals of that religion should be front and center in any discussion of his readiness to lead a nation. His religion, if not well known to everyone, should be made well known to everyone. Just hearing that his religion is a “big one” with “lots of ordinary people” in it should be no excuse not to put it under the microscope — those folks who say that the “major religions” are pretty much the same are folks who have never really seriously looked at those religions (or their countless subdivisions).
Even if a candidate is not a staunch follower of his professed religion, there are important questions worth asking… In what areas does he follow it absolutely? In what areas does he seek liberality? What considerations cause him to choose fidelity or license in his relationship to his religion’s doctrines?
What is the candidate’s view of the book at the heart of his religion? Does he believe that the Bible is inerrant? Does he think it is full of wisdom, but some mistakes as well — or perhaps hopelessly out of date? Wouldn’t answers to these questions, explained in detail and without obfuscation (what an obfuscating word!), be enormously enlightening?
Shouldn’t a “hardcore atheist” voter care passionately about whether or not his future president is “delusional”? And shouldn’t a “hardcore evangelical” voter care passionately about whether or not his future president is “godless”? Given the worldviews of both voters, shouldn’t the worldview of the person running for president be an issue of incredible importance, worthy of public analysis and discussion?
When considering a person’s worthiness to lead an entire nation — in fact, the most powerful nation on earth today, however tenuously that title might be held as time moves on — I would think that it would be in people’s interest to know that person inside and out, as thoroughly as humanly possible. And in doing so, I can’t fully fathom how religion isn’t focused on more extensively and more explicitly.
I would think that whether or not he truly believes that ancient Israelites settled in the Americas and built ancient civilizations would be a fair question for Mr. Romney, as would questions on other Mormon doctrines. Similarly, I would think that Mr. Obama should be actively willing to discuss in detail his stance on the tenets of Black Liberation Theology and the beliefs of James Hal Cone, or Mr. Huckabee should be willing to address in detail what role he believes laws and statues given in the Old Testament should play in the laws and statues of a modern nation like the U.S.
If a man’s faith is a fundamental factor in determining who the man really is and what he ultimately stands for, shouldn’t it take center stage in days like these — or at the very least share some significant portion of center stage?
Perhaps it is because everyone “knows” that for most politicians their “religion” is nothing more than a means to an end — a button they can pin on that will make voters say in their hearts, “Hey, he’s like me!” Perhaps this is why a candidate’s religion seems to “matter” only to the degree that it seems different than the “major flavors” most of us are familiar with, however vaguely. And in those cases, candidates have a choice: deny that they are really that different, assert that the differences are not really a source of concern, or explain why the differences make him even more suited to the job.
Anyway, I’m sure that the religious beliefs of Mr. Obama or of his long time pastor and (former?) friend Mr. Wright are being heatedly and publicly discussed by many mostly out of desire for political profit, though I do not think this is the case for everyone who does so. And, again, I do not participate in politics and I do not vote due to my religious convictions, so in a real sense I do not have (as we’d say in Texas) a dog in this fight during this election year (though I recognize that whatever dog is elected will determine the brand of dog food I have to eat for the next four years). But I will continue to watch with fascination as an aspect of a national leader’s worldview goes under appropriate scrutiny, all the while hoping that the worldviews of the others get equal time under the public microscope.