There is a story told of a man who was finally rescued after many years on a desert island. He proudly showed the rescuers all that he had made for himself during his exile: the hut, the garden, a playing field, and two churches. When asked why he had built two houses of worship he explained that he regularly attended one and the other was the church he refused to go to under any circumstances. That negative and judgmental aspect of religion is not confined to small islands or bad jokes but is all too often the public face of religion. In this election year, that unfortunate impulse in the faithful has already begun to make its mark and undoubtedly will become a larger factor as November nears.
The results of the presidential election are expected to be close. And so far, our public discourse is relentlessly negative. The fear of what might happen if “the Other” were elected is generating far more energy than any hope associated with a particular candidate. Concerns about Mormonism or the preaching of Jeremiah Wright are being quietly fanned. Instincts that are drawn to homogeneity are allowed to rail against inclusivity. Islam receives little understanding from those of many theologies, and the frequent reports of its adherents blowing up themselves and others make insight even more elusive. Long-standing issues of contraception, abortion, sexuality, re-distribution of wealth, stewardship of the environment, and healthcare, as well as public and private debt, combine to produce a nearly perfect storm of fear, judgment, and negativity. Like the man on the island, we are surrounded by churches, ideologies, and trends we do not want to consider under any circumstances. The result is that we who have been invited to serve at the banquet of God’s bounty are instead volunteering in droves to serve on the jury at Judgment Day.
Deeper and Better Impulses
Yet that is an offer God consistently declines to accept. Teachings of the great religions condemn passing judgments on our neighbor. Those of us who are Christians would do well to remember that Jesus made it quite clear that we are simply not qualified to render the judgments we are so easily tempted to make. Those we regard as “ne’er do wells” will be in the Kingdom long before those we admire, he said. And he told a parable about our inability to separate good and evil—a job reserved for angels who are well above our station and grade. Our task is to be agents of the opposite of current political trends: openness, inclusion, truth, trust, forgiveness, understanding, generosity, and personal risk in the name of all of these things. The private hearts of people of faith know this even while our public faces are contorted by negativity.
This does not mean there is a clear religious answer to the issues that perplex our nation. People of reason and faith do come to very different conclusions about the best course and the best candidate to lead us on that course. We are not called to common conclusions but to common paths, principles, and hopes. People of faith are bound to a given set of questions, even if the answers will vary. Faith’s questions include exploring the potential for reconciliation of all people; impact on the environment as well as the economy; the interplay of freedom and responsibility; the encouragement of generosity; and concern for the vulnerable along with the valuable.
The power of these questions and others like them is not absent from the hearts of the faithful even if they are of little interest to adrenaline-addicted news cycles. The deeper and better impulses of religion remain overshadowed by the reality of shallow and unmoored behavior carried out under its banner. This distortion results in a national discomfort with the fact of faith. We forget our Founders’ understanding that while church and state must be separate, democracy depends on the fruits of well grounded faith, fruits associated with the kind of questions already mentioned. In our discomfort we have come to the absurd oxymoronic notion that faith simply does not matter in public life. Our culture tends to treat it as an isolated personal choice having no more bearing on our community than the decision to collect stamps or ride a bicycle: one’s right to do so is affirmed, but the practice of it is deemed to be without impact outside the circles of intimacy. Political rhetoric takes an equally limiting view. If all one knew about religion came from the political process it would appear to be on a par with the decision to wear purple or green; entirely personal and private with no bearing on one’s qualifications for office.
The Dangers of Denial
Faith is actually the means by which one understands life and the world in which we live. Is life good? If so, how is its value expressed? What are the purposes of life, and how does one contribute to and serve them? The great narratives of faith address those questions in mythic form, and the answers one derives from them have much to do with how one might lead a nation. The principles of faith lie behind the priorities we set and the manner in which we work to fulfill them. To pretend that the faith of our leaders is not a matter of interest to the electorate is an act of denial with substantial consequences far beyond the scope of dealing with the intolerant excesses of some religious practitioners.
And there is no real reason for it. The traditions that formed President Obama and Governor Romney’s faiths have several points that should be of interest to voters. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long and commendable emphasis on the importance of family life. It is a point well worth acknowledging and worthy of commendation by anyone concerned with the fabric of our nation. The DNA of African-American faith communities includes a lively concern for justice that can always benefit our common experiences. And both traditions believe that God’s purposes are worked out in the flow of history—the very flow the president of the United States significantly influences. Our candidates have been molded by their faith communities as they have been shaped by educational institutions, families, and work experiences. The sources of their convictions and assumptions are proper inquiries in an election year. Our national respect for individual choice in religion makes the processes of faith communities off-limits, but the resulting values are as important to elections as they are to governance.
Liabilities and Assets
Just as positive values emerge from the traditions of Messrs. Obama and Romney, questions can also be raised about them. Thinking of Mormonism and the African-American tradition in the broadest possible categories, both have the experience of being marginalized in ways not known in mainline or national faith communities. That experience tends to produce strong internal loyalties and strengths but can develop wary if not hostile relationships with the wider community that have no place in national governance. I am not suggesting that either candidate has that limiting view: I am suggesting that a lively conversation about the importance of faith should not keep us from hearing how the candidates have honored the obvious assets of their religious background and how they have dealt with some of its possible liabilities.
Religion is a powerful force in life. That point is obvious to believers and unbelievers alike. Much of history’s goodness as well as its terror spring from some form of religious conviction. In spite of our checkered behavior, faith retains an interest in questions that are vital to the common good. For our nation to pretend that the beliefs of our president are a matter of indifference is an absurdity that ill serves us. Putting one’s light under a bushel is a common failing. Trying to convince the world that there was no light in the first place is a folly with peculiar power during an election.