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Campaign Dogma 2010: Religion and Politics = God and Country

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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.

Glenn BeckThat'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.

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76 Comments

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rlochsleigh

religion...dont' get me started. they allowed a muslum with no birth certificate and no proof he was even born in the united states into the presidential office. if he couldn't provide a united states birth certifcate he should have been forced to step down as a candidate. i don't want religion taken to far out of the government because "In God I Trust" in physical, tangible, facts i trust. where is the physical proof and the tangible certificate that says that candidate ws even eligible for office?????

November 02 2010 at 9:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rlochsleigh

seperation of church and state is just one issue to distract from what should be requirements. we have to drug test to get a job. why don't politician and welfare receipiants. we can get fired for criminal records and criminal charges why can't politicains. i beleive that if a politician gets a dui or other felony charges they should be outted as well as welfare receipiants. i also think that politicians should not get special medical care programs and should have to live with the same plans they set up for the population that way when their plan lets 60-70 yr old people die from not getting treatment maybe it will be their mother/ father/ or self and then they will say"i wish i never voted this plan in"

November 02 2010 at 9:05 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
oldengineera2

Faith is a private and personal issue, and in my opinion, a poor cornerstone for governing, secular political systems. The founders seemed to agree in that they were specific in banning the establishment of a mandatory state religion.

November 01 2010 at 8:41 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
laclone

"It harms me not, that my neighbor might believe in one god, no god, or many gods." --- Thomas Jefferson. For the sake of the original dream of Americian Freedom,... PLEASE! Read for yourselves and discover the words, thoughts and intent of our Founding Fathers, for others today are twisting, changing, and out-right fabricating what those intentions were. YOU ARE BEING LIED TO, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you're taken in by these lies. Americian Priniples and Morality were not based on Christian Beliefs, as others want you to think, but on "...common morals and priciples expressed by religions the world over. Christianity being only one of them!" --- Benjamin Franklin. "Seek the Truth for yourself, for no Politician wants you to find it!" --- John Adams

October 31 2010 at 10:26 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
Ohtar

Why should any of this even matter? So you believe something different than I do. That's nice. But personal beliefs should not be the basis of how you plan on making laws for the people, the MANY DIFFERENT people, of our country to follow by. These laws should be made to BENEFIT everybody. Not to appease only the people who like to let their God/s run their lives. I don't understand how crazy people have let themselves become over religion. And I don't understand why people are so arrogant to let themselves believe that the path they choose to walk is the one and only one that should be allowed. You're all nuts.

October 31 2010 at 8:47 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
croone22

I am glad Obama wants us to put politics aside,something that he has not been able to do. So,I guess my statement, concerning what really matters in the Delaware race, will meet the Obama standard, and,hopefully, that of our chief censor in this forum, AOL. I just honestly believe that we must start considering those things that are really important to the majority of this nation, Christians and other theists. And if Obama's statement that this nation is not a Christian nation is not revealing enough, what is taking place in this nation surely threatens the future of Christianity in this nation and Religion in general. So,as a Christian whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ and His Word which are the most important things in my life, I have some serious concerns about what is happening in America and ,in particular,the race in Delaware. And I have some serious questions for Christians who live there: How is it that the Christians of Delaware can even consider electing Coons who is an atheist, and is anti- Religion ( he is for the removal of Creationism from school teachings) and whose views on the 1st Amendment are seriously flawed and very indicative of someone who is an atheist and has a strong penchant for Marxism as does Obama. Where does Jesus Christ fit into that thinking? Clearly,He does not! And ,surely, Coons can not be serious if he defends his position on the grounds of separation of Church and State. There is no separation when his positions threatens Religious freedom and undermines Christian values and principles that made this nation great. Are we all going crazy or does Party and ethnicity come before Christian values and principles? Coons is a rubber stamp for Obama who has already stated that the United States is not a Christian nation. Doesn't that mean anything to the Christians of Delaware? I hope so ,because Coons is not going to help Delaware's economy either which is already in need of CPR. The poor and middle-class will be heavily taxed when Obama's Cap and Trade kicks in. Coons owns stock in a company named Gore-Tex that will reap billions in profits from Cap-and-Trade and will make Coons very rich at the expense of the people of Delaware. But the most important thing to me is my belief in Jesus Christ,and the importance of Christianity to this nation. Right now,we have secular minorities and atheists ,who are seeking recognition and tolerance for those things that will change the meaning of right and wrong, seeking to compromise Christian values and principles. An ideology that challenges and mocks our beliefs in Jesus Christ, and our right to practice our Religion. So,Christians of Delaware, I ask you: Do you believe that Jesus Christ would vote for Coons?

October 31 2010 at 7:26 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
doublelead

You know this country is in serious trouble when love of God,family, and country are considered "extremist" views.

October 31 2010 at 6:57 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Coprogirl

FIRST of all, it was not Jefferson who put "endowed by our Creator" in the Declaration. That was put in by others, probably to placate the religious. Second of all, you are free to believe whatever you want; you are not free to impose it on me. If you put your Christian beliefs in the government, then you are forcing it on people who do not believe. Finally, Jefferson re-wrote his new testament to remove all supernatural references. While he admired Christ for his humanty, he was not a Christian in the sense of the believer. He was a Deist, who is more an agnostic than a believer.

October 31 2010 at 6:11 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
billyboy

This country is in DEEP DEEP trouble. All this nonsense about god, chritians and country sounds like most ppl. in this country have lost their minds. It`s almost like watching the american taliban. Christins? I think not. I think it`s more like BS?

October 31 2010 at 6:07 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
nsheats

There is no connection between God and politics in this elections and there should not be. There is however a lamentable connection between the so called republicans and the radical right religions. If you think your freedoms have been repressed under Mr. Bush's Honeland Security fiasco stick around. You wont believe how your rights will vanish under a Theocracy run by the radical christians.

October 31 2010 at 6:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to nsheats's comment
sabdouch

I am more afraid of the American Taliban (Religious Right) than I am of Terrorism

October 31 2010 at 6:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rhiredhelp

Too right. One need only look at Uganda to see what could happen. I think freedom loving people everywhere should thank Museveni and his ministers for exposing just what could happen here if their sort DO take over in this country; and for reminding everyone that Bin Laden and his boys aren't the ONLY ones looking to impose tyranny by theocracy on the world.

October 31 2010 at 8:06 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

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