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How Faith-Based Politicking Degrades Democracy and Christianity

Yesterday I opened the over-stuffed kitchen cabinet at my parents’ house in search of evaporated milk, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but an industrial-sized bag of non-iodized kosher salt. While my father’s Great Depression-era zeal for bargains has led to many strange purchases, this item seemed particularly out of place: We’re evangelical Christians.

For a few awkward moments, the bag and I just stood there staring at each other in embarrassed silence, neither wanting to say the obvious. As I closed the door on that forlorn package, its pretty colors and bright star of David overshadowed by mountains of mac and cheese, my thoughts ran to something else that’s been out of place lately, something that’s wonderful and appropriate in one setting, but hits a jarring note in another.

Throughout this long and torturous presidential campaign, something has been causing many Americans of good will to feel uneasy, fidget, or get up to make a snack: the sometimes solemn, often cynically manipulative insertion of “faith” into virtually every campaign speech and political discussion. Rock’em-sock-em Christian candidates trade holier-than-thou barbs and jabber endlessly about that poor exhausted word “faith”, all in an effort to prove who’s got the biggest pipeline to God. Faith-based politicking is the crowd-pleasing campaign smartbomb that’s supposed to blast through every ounce of reason in our heads, and pretty much force us to vote for whichever man wins that round. It works because it scares people, particularly religious people: As the thinking goes, and the chain emails filling Christian voters, inboxes shout, Dare you cast a vote against the Almighty?

Implying that one’s values, “character”, and decisions come straight from God, hence are inerrant and infallible, is a timeless and shameless trick to short-circuit questions and prevail over others. But when politicians get into this bad habit, Americans, including those of us residing in the much-courted and much-maligned “evangelical bloc”, sense that something is terribly amiss.

While Christians of every denomination are viewed by political strategists as mere sheep to be herded this way and that, many of us are not fooled by all the threats that we’d better vote for George W. Bush if we want to take communion or get to heaven. We know, deep in our hearts and minds, that our democracy AND our religion are tainted when preachers tell us how to vote rather than how to be better Christians.

And those of us who were raised in evanglical churches are especially suspicious–though we may not say so for fear of making our neighbors or family members angry–when candidates claim to be spokesmen for God, or imply that they’re something even more.

In the last debate, George Bush said something that popped out at me like that bag of salt: “I never want to impose my religion on anybody else. But when I make decisions I stand on principle. And the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself.”

When I heard that seamless transition from “who I am” to words normally attributed to Jesus without any reference to the latter, I was reminded of Mr. Bush’s reply to the person in the audience at a campaign stop who’d expressed gratitude that “God is in the White House”. The President didn’t clarify or demur, “no, no, I’m imperfect and a sinner like all of us, just an humble public servant” or “I appreciate your sentiment but remember I worship God but I’m not God–I’m only human” or, even as Jesus said when he was given great praise, “Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone.” Instead, Bush simply told the adoring man, “Thank you,” saying nothing to dispel the divine aura.

When I was growing up, preachers had a word for the sin of identifying with, rather than merely praying to or loving, God–a sin that any Christian, given enough praise and power and narcissism, can commit if he’s not watching out for temptation. I shuddered, and got up to make a snack.

On my way to the kitchen I heard him continue, “That’s manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we’ve unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can’t tell you how encouraged how I am to see freedom on the march. And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And religion is a part of me.”

Aside from all the armies and the marching going on (the dismembered lyrics of “Onward Christians Soldiers” make their appearance yet again), the part that concerned me most was our President’s assumption that his principles, ergo his decisions on matters such as foreign policy that have life-and-death consequences for innocent people here and abroad, stem directly from God’s own desires. If Mr. Bush believes that God “wants everybody to be free,” then we as voters must simply trust-have faith-that he’s the candidate who hears God correctly, and that he and God share the same definition of “free”.

If we stop to count the cost of that freedom, or show the temerity to listen to God ourselves, we might have qualms about Mr. Bush’s policies. The unspoken message is that we must vote for the most “godly” candidate (at least insofar as we can judge by their words), or risk placing ourselves in opposition to God.

Pummeled by relentless faith-based claims, we the people are feeling a certain pressure to abandon as hopelessly old-fashioned or even demonic the democratic notion that we ought to “look out for the other guy”, standing up for our fellow Americans who follow a different God or prefer no religion at all. This pressure is nothing new and is, historically, where the trouble starts.

E.B. White, author of the beloved children’s book, “Charlotte’s Web” and longtime “New Yorker” columnist, writes: “The matter of “faith” has been in the papers gain lately. President Eisenhowerhas come out for prayer and has emphasized that most Americans are motivated (as surely they are) by religious faith. The Herald Tribune headed the story, PRESIDENT SAYS PRAYER IS PART OF DEMOCRACY. The implication in such a pronouncement, emanating from the seat of government, is that religious faith is a condition, or even a precondition, of the democratic life. This is just wrong.

“A President should pray whenever and wherever he feels like it (most Presidents have prayed hard and long, and some of them in desperation and agony), but I don’t think a President should advertise prayer Democracy, if I understand it at all, is a society in which the unbeliever feels undisturbed and at home. If there were only half a dozen unbelievers in America, their well-being would be a test of our democracy, their tranquility would be its proof

“I hope my country will never become an uncomfortable place for the unbeliever, as it could easily become if prayer was made one of the requirements of the accredited citizen. My wife, a spiritual but not a prayerful woman, read Mr. Eisenhower’s call to prayer in the Tribune and said something I shall never forget. “Maybe it’s all right,” she said, “But for the first time in my life I,m beginning to feel like an outsider in my own land.””

White wrote these words in 1956 (“Bedfellows”, in “Essays of EB White”, Harper Perennial, 1992), and, sadly, his warning rings true again in this election year of 2004. Americans, including and especially evangelical Christians, ought to start standing up for true faith and authentic democracy, protesting whenever the cornerstone of our religion is used as a “wedge tool”, or as a platform for a “my God is bigger than your God” contest.

When faith is forced to play politics, it inevitably loses something of the sacred, and becomes an object of ridicule. If we,re to pray for something, let us pray that politicians of every stripe will stop teaching our children that faith and prayer are requirements for campaigning and citizenship rather than spirituality, and that Christianity is just one more hammer in the political tool chest.

Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist and writer. Her most recent book describes the nonviolent guidance of children, Jesus on Parenting, Baker Books, 9/2004.

You can contact her at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org

 

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