Sunday, March 02, 2008

Candidates and faith

Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School, writes about presidential candidates and their faith in yesterday’s Voices of Faith column in the Times Union.
Eight years ago, when George W. Bush stated on the eve of the Iowa caucuses that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, suppose someone had asked a follow-up question: "Mr. Bush, Jesus, your favorite philosopher, invited his followers to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. How will that guide your foreign policy, especially in the event, say, of an attack on the United States?"

Or: "Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow. How will that sentiment be reflected in your administration's environmental policies?"

Or: "Jesus called his followers to care for 'the least of these.' How does that teaching inform your views on tax policy or welfare reform?"

He goes on to note:
Ronald Reagan insisted abortion was the defining moral issue of his time, and he campaigned twice for the presidency promising to outlaw it. Yet as even his supporters acknowledge he made no serious effort to outlaw abortion. He made no mention of it in his 700-page autobiography.

On the other hand, no one could accuse Lyndon Johnson of being a demonstrably pious or religious man. Yet he learned (and sought to live by) a simple maxim that he attributed to his mother: The strong have an obligation to look after the weak. That principle led him, a white Southerner, to push for civil rights, and it also animated his quest for the Great Society. Tragically, Johnson used the same principle to justify American involvement in Vietnam.

Billy Graham detected vast reservoirs of faith in his friend Richard Nixon, who hosted worship services in the White House. Probity, however, is not the first word that comes to mind in recalling the Nixon administration. And Bill Clinton's many critics would be justified in pointing out the disjunction between his professions of faith and his conduct in the Oval Office.

Arguably, the only exception to this litany proves the rule. Jimmy Carter ran for office promising a government as "good and decent as the American people" to whom he pledged, "I will never lie to you." After he sought actually to govern according to his moral principles -- revising the Panama Canal Treaty, seeking peace in the Middle East -- the American people denied him a second term.

Then he goes on:
We the voters settle for shallow, perfunctory bromides about faith and piety. We allow candidates to lull us into believing they are moral and virtuous simply because they say they are.

At the very least, we should examine those claims to see if any real substance lies beneath the campaign rhetoric. If we're not willing to probe the depth and the sincerity of politicians' declarations of faith, then we shouldn't bother to ask the question.

Albany Catholic recommends the entire article, which can be found