One of Minnesota's many notable and quotable politicians, the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy, once said that in Washington only two kinds of religion are permitted: strong beliefs vaguely expressed, or vague beliefs strongly expressed.
If the 2010 midterm campaign has demonstrated anything, it is the enduring truth of that observation, both for belief and for politics.
Certainly, neither party's candidates want to be pinned down on exactly what outlays they would cut or what taxes they would raise to provide jobs, boost the economy and reduce the budget deficit, which are the electorate's top concerns. But everyone wants you to know that they would do something bold and decisive, and that they can be trusted to be as good as their word -- no need to worry about exactly what they would or could actually do.
In similar fashion, loudly proclaiming one's faith is more than ever part of a viable political career, and so is keeping the devilish details of that faith as opaque as possible.
That's because polls show that voters, even the most conservative, are far more interested in dumping incumbents and fixing the economy than they are in debates over the traditional hot-button, sex-related issues of abortion and gay marriage and, at least in the case of Christine O'Donnell, opposition to masturbation.
What voters have been keen on hearing, however -- fitting for a campaign that is short on policy and long on passions -- was that candidates share their sense of America's identity and are committed to "taking the country back," as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea party leader, likes to say.
And the most effective way for pols to project that shared vision is to preach a civil religion of God (the Judeo-Christian version, of course) and country, with the Founding Fathers standing in for Jesus and Moses, and the Constitution and Declaration of Independence for sacred Scripture. And the most effective way for pols to bash their opponent is to paint them as infidels to the national catechism.
For instance, when President Obama twice riffed on the Declaration of Independence's opening lines about "inalienable rights" but did not include the part about them being endowed by the "Creator" he was blasted
for committing a kind of American heresy. And a number of tea party candidates, most famously O'Donnell, were praised for arguing that the principle of "separation of church and state" was a late addition to the Constitution and was aimed at squelching religious freedom.
To be sure, faith, family and flag have always been a collective staple of American public rhetoric, but in an era of bully populism, this civil religion, loudly proclaimed, is especially smart politics.
Surveys heading into the campaign's home stretch show that while more voters than ever say churches should stay out of politics, voters also fear that religion in general is losing influence on American life, and 61 percent say it is "important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs." That figure, in a Pew poll
, jumped to 77 percent among Republicans, and 83 percent among evangelical Christians.
Similarly, research just published by Purdue University scholars shows that Americans increasingly believe that being a Christian is a key aspect of being "truly American," as the percentage of Americans who saw Christian identity as a "very important" attribute of being American increased from 38 percent to 49 percent between 1996 and 2004.
For followers of the tea party movement, the game-changing bloc in this year's vote, the trend
was even more noticeable: Some 55 percent of tea partiers say that "America has always been and is currently a Christian nation," even though tea partiers themselves were less likely than other conservatives to attend church.
In such an environment, "strong beliefs vaguely expressed" or "vague beliefs strongly expressed" is the ticket. And it helps explain season's most memorable spectacle, that of Glenn Beck, a Fox News personality, organizing the "Restoring Honor" tent revival on the National Mall in August -- a convert to Mormonism serving as a religious leader to conservative Protestants who, by and large, think Beck's actual religion is a heresy.
Lucky for Beck, most didn't know he is a Mormon, and his national altar call for a civil religion was widely praised as non-political. Indeed, it didn't have to be: Everyone got the message without the doctrinal details, which would only have complicated what was intended as a simple message for a simpler time.
Likewise, Christian conservative Sarah Palin has been offering a more generic
, patriotic version of her usual God-talk during this campaign cycle, focusing on America's "God-given freedoms" rather than the role of Jesus in her life and agenda.
Even Delaware's celebrity Republican candidate for Senate, Christine O'Donnell, has sought to tone down sectarian Christian connections to her platform (as well as her past dalliance with witchcraft) while still stressing her strong conservative Christian bona fides.
"What I believe is irrelevant," O'Donnell told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in mid-October when pressed about whether she views evolution as a myth. Later that day she told
a Republican gathering, "My faith has influenced my personal life. My faith hasn't really influenced my politics." As one of her famous ad slogans had it, "I'm you,"
and, she said, she will do what you (we) want in Washington.
Some took a more aggressive line on the same message, arguing more directly that their opponent was not
one of us. That is what former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed -- who resuscitated his career this year by founding the aptly named Faith and Freedom Coalition -- did with a radio ad against Harry Reid in the Nevada senate race. It was titled, "It's Us Vs. Them."
Civil religion was preached most fervently by tea party types, with obvious advantages for Republicans. But this national faith offers different advantages for supporters in both parties.
By talking about God and country and prayer and prosperity, some Democratic candidates are able to deploy a kind of religious-sounding language -- which they often otherwise reject -- and can appeal to conservative-minded voters without coming off like sectarian culture warriors, which would turn off their more secular base.
For Republicans, the effect is the opposite: longtime culture warriors submerge their sectarian speech in the safe yet powerful tenets of the American religion -- individual freedom, personal responsibility, lower taxes, less government, a return to the good old days, all blessed by a God generic enough for everyone to worship. Who could be against that?
Embracing a religion of national purpose is also particularly effective for Republican candidates like O'Donnell and for conservative activists who early on were afraid that the rise of the tea party and its values-free, economic libertarianism would sideline social conservatives and perhaps split the party at a moment of triumph.
But as Election Day approaches, it seems clear that conservatives in the dueling camps have been able to either paper over their differences, or perhaps forge a bond -- which, if it lasts, could prove to be the genuine innovation of the 2010 election -- that identifies economic conservatism as integral to family-values conservatism and vice versa.
"Personal responsibility, charity, the proper role of government, and fiscal discipline are biblical principles that are woven into the fabric of America," Wendy Wright, head of Concerned Women for America, wrote in an election-eve essay
in Christianity Today arguing that the tea party movement promotes Christian faith and American values, which are synonymous
"Over the past 30 years, evangelicals have rediscovered America's Christian roots," Wright said. "Concerned Women for America state chapters hold book clubs with tea party activists to study constitutional principles. This naturally leads to curiosity about concepts like 'inalienable rights, which come from God.' Biblical principles are woven throughout the Constitution-principles some current leaders seem to have forgotten."
For both Democrats and Republicans, the great advantage of wrapping partisan politics in the language of civil religion is that candidates don't have to espouse the civility that actual religious traditions, like Christianity, demand of their disciples. And the goal of many attacks is to paint opponents as out of step with the American mainstream, the unforgiveable sin of this election cycle.
For example, Jack Conway, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, earned wide criticism with his efforts to tie Rand Paul, the Republican favorite, to Paul's college high jinks over an oddball god called "Aqua Buddha."
On the other hand, Conway did not attempt to exploit Paul's arguable links
to Christian Reconstructionism
, a right-wing movement that sees Christian theology and conservative politics as inseparable. It's likely that that would not have been viewed so negatively.
Likewise, Sharron Angle's critics seek to highlight her support
for a Scientology-controlled rehabilitation program for prison inmates, while the pastor at the conservative mega-church that Angle attended for years stirred controversy with an extended diatribe
against Angle's opponent, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for being a Mormonism, a religion the pastor called a "cult," as well as less kindly things.
And of course Barack Obama was often portrayed as a Muslim or even the Devil, in Rush Limbaugh's reading
, or as a Christian who believes in, of all things, social justice -- a Christian tradition that's been around since, well, Jesus Christ. But "social justice" was, as Glenn Beck explained, code for an imminent takeover of the United States by Nazism or communism, both heresies to Americans that could not be tolerated.
"I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website," Beck said last spring
in the first of many diatribes on the topic. "If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"
Leave your church. Believe in America. In the topsy-turvy campaign of 2010, secular faith has carried the day.