One candidate after another has trotted forth his religious bona fides; one candidate after another has told us how God has chosen them to run for office. Rick Perry even took the unprecedented step of holding a prayer rally and filled it with the most extremist voices he could find, and informed America that only his god could fix its problems. But we all have to pray.
Given the note upon which the 2008 election ended – Sarah Palin’s promise that God would do the right thing on Election Day – none of this is surprising. The Republicans had already resurrected the ancient “divine right of kings” – the belief that God chooses and ordains rulers over people; that ultimate political power does not, as the Constitution says, abide in the people, but rests instead with God. The ultimate proof of that position was the claim that it was God, not the American people, who put the Evangelical favorite, George W. Bush, into office.
Faced with the fact of a Mormon candidate as their party’s pick for president, Republicans now scramble to accommodate various conflicting beliefs. An article at CBN, for example, asks an almost unprecedented question, one we haven’t heard asked by a conservative Christian in years: Does Faith Matter?
The answer seems to be, where Barack Obama is concerned, “Yes, very much.” That is the message we have heard repeatedly since he ran for president in 2008. It is the position the GOP has been pushing since 1964, when they began the process of turning the Grand Old Party into God’s Own Party. Now, faced with a president they despise and a candidate they aren’t sure is even a Christian, the bullet train of certainty is shaking on its tracks. Where Romney is concerned, the answer seems to be less equivocal.
Imagine their dilemma. Republicans are torn: they have a candidate who, while he is not Christian – at least in their eyes – sides with them on the central issues of the culture war: opposition to marriage equality, opposition to abortion and women’s reproductive rights. He also sides with them on the other important issues: opposition to big government when it’s a big government controlled by Democrats, opposition to environmental concerns, and last but not least, opposition to healthcare. We have seen some of them condemn Romney’s religion; we have seen others make excuses for it. What else are they going to do? The primaries saw the Evangelical favorites, Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, fail one by one. Romney, the Mormon, is the man they were left with.
You would think there would be a lesson in there somewhere, a lesson about the power of religion, the power of the religious to choose a candidate. If conservative Christians could not even get their favorite to the Convention, what hope have they of getting him through Election Day? But this is not a question they want to be asking. So they focus instead on Mitt Romney. Is he? Isn’t he? Romney says this would be a huge step for his religion; conservative Protestants are much less certain if he’s good for theirs.
Some of them have managed to talk themselves into a position where Romney’s religion is not an issue; others – Bryan Fischer notable among them – not so much. CBN is right on the one hand to bring up similarities to John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president, but wrong on the other hand because Kennedy refused to govern as a Catholic, whereas Romney has campaigned as a conservative Christian all the way. Kennedy stood by the First Amendment’s Wall of Separation; Romney has thrown it under the bus where his fundamentalist allies believe it belongs.
Mitt Romney is NOT John F. Kennedy. Their sole similarity is that each was a member of a religion that had never before provided a president.
But the issue of religion is a very real and potent argument today. The Constitution forbids religious tests for office but we have religious tests both on the local and the national level: the GOP has made sure of it. Even Obama was forced to play along in 2008 in order to placate religious voters, vying for the official sanction of bigoted religious extremist Rick Warren. He horrified his progressive base but calmed the religiously conflicted.
Religion has intruded itself so strongly into politics, where the Founding Fathers agreed it did not belong, that it is difficult to run these days without it coming up. The question seems to be, is it right that it only matters when the candidate is a Democrat? Republicans have pushed so hard to delegitimize the Democratic Party that they talk like Obama is a usurper. Democrats represent the Paganization of America; Democrats are not the people God wants in charge of his nation. You can see the cognitive dissonance: Sarah Palin promised; God gave us Barack Obama.
Republicans make no excuses for Barack Obama, nor seek to find any. He is either a heretic or a Muslim. So successful have they been at turning him into a Muslim that four years later, less than half the people polled in July of this year believe he is a Christian. The one thing conservative Christians all agree on is that if he is a Christian, his Christianity is not any sort of genuine article.
But this position is hypocritical because some of these same people are willing to look the other way for a candidate more to their liking. Religion can’t matter for one person and not for another: it either matters or it does not. We have been sold the necessity of religious tests for years: can it be, now faced with a sitting president they despise, that they can fall back on moral relativism and nix the religious test for his opponent? Is expediency the new marketing scheme of fundamentalism?
The selection of Paul Ryan is obviously meant, at least in part, to cement Mitt Romney’s bruised bona fides among conservative Christians. Besides his economic stance as demonstrated by his infamous budget plan, Ryan is a conservative Roman Catholic – social conservatives love him. We are told by other Catholics that he is anything but, as proven by his disparaging views of those in need.
Writing yesterday on CNN’s Belief Blog, Dan Gilgoff and Dan Merica said of Romney’s choice:
Ryan’s advocacy for cutting taxes and trimming the deficit — he is the architect of the GOP’s proposed federal budget — married with his willingness to talk about fiscal belt-tightening in moral terms and his low-key social conservatism speak to a political moment in which the economic concerns of the Tea Party and the social focus of the Christian right have merged into a relatively cohesive anti-Obama movement.
That would be the hope, but even by himself, Romney no more presents America with a cohesive worldview than does an Etch A Sketch. Ryan will have to be a magic ingredient indeed to coagulate Romney’s diverse opinions into a cohesive whole.
Those who put Bible above Constitution are certain to like Ryan, but in the end, that demographic is composed of people who were already not going to vote for Obama. It doesn’t bring anybody to the left of Hitler into the party; even white supremacists are voting Republican. Ryan’s religion may bring over some socially conservative Catholics and like-minded Protestants who have doubts about the Mormon Romney, but anyone else? Forget about it. Ryan is not a magnet for moderates or Independents.
It is probably both an advantage and a disadvantage for Romney that religion does matter, at least to conservatives. The real question is, how much does it matter?
Religion will be a deal-breaker for some, and Romney’s Mormonism will likely lose him votes he may otherwise have had on account of his economic platform; religion will also lose him the votes of those who can’t accommodate the member of a religion they’ve been brought up their entire life to despise. Worldviews aren’t so easily disposed of. Your average fundamentalist’s lifetime of indoctrination is not as easily tossed aside for the sake of expediency as it is for Romney and Ryan. And a vote for Jesus may answer the call of integrity for the devout but it won’t put a Mormon in the White House.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, will have no problem accruing the votes of all those religions (and non-religion) that modern-day Republicanism despises, as well as those of moderate and progressive Christians. And a sure stumbling block for Romney and those who have made religion such an issue is that even were the election decided purely on the basis of conservative Christianity’s culture war platform that would still not make enough votes for a Romney win, as proven by their inability to give the nomination to their favorites – Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum.
On social issues, America is moving to the left, not to the right. The Pew Forum tells us that as of the end of July, two-thirds of Democrats now support marriage equality. America as a whole has reached the tipping point, where just over 50 percent of people support same-sex relationships. Fundamentalists can convince themselves that Chick Fil A Appreciation Day (a better name would be Pat Your Bigotry on the Back Day) disproves the polls but that’s wishful thinking.
Christianity is losing members, not gaining them. Rather than broadening their tent, Republicans only manage, again and again, to make it smaller. Republicans have invested so much time and energy into the religion debate that if religion turns out to be a relative non-issue, as The Pew Forum suggests, they might well wish they had diversified their message.
If, on the other hand, religion does turn out to be more of an issue than Pew thinks, their focus may well backfire on them. By making it important that being the “right sort of Christian” matters, they have put Mitt Romney in the unenviable position of not being that “right sort” if he is really a Christian at all by their standards. Many would argue that belief in the Trinity is essential, and there is no Trinity where Romney comes from. Three wives? Sure. Three parts of God? Not so much.
Perhaps the Founding Fathers were being hopelessly idealistic when they tried to take religion out of the equation, but I don’t think so. They knew their history if Republicans, having stuck themselves with David Barton’s counterfeit, do not. I think they knew very well how divisive an issue religion could be, which is why they bequeathed to us Article VI, paragraph 3, which forbids religious tests for office, and the First Amendment, banning government sponsorship of religion.
Those parts of the Constitution are there because of days like today, when religion threatens to tear our nation apart, just as it once tore the Old World apart. Democrats would do well to remember this on Election Day, because Republicans will not.
Image from Liberal Effects