Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Whatever Became of Religion in this Year’s Campaign?
Have you noticed that religion, at least for now, seems to have become old news in the presidential election? That’s not to say that some of the big issues don’t have significant moral or theological implications for believers. Our attitudes toward wealth – how we got it, how we use it, whether it’s an inherently good or bad thing, whether there can be too much wealth, and whether government ought to play any role in regulating the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of the nation are all questions freighted with theological importance. But the candidates’ religion, and the scrambling for endorsement from this or that religious leader or personality just doesn’t seem to be of great interest to voters right now. Compared to the fireworks over Obama’s church membership four years ago and the zany religious vaudeville show of the Republican primary season, religion is not generating much news.
Maybe it’s just all too complicated for the average voter. For a while we had to watch the battle between Mitt, the monogamous Mormon, and Newt, the serial polygamous Catholic. Then we have two Catholic vice presidential candidates who don’t look like they go to the same church, both of whom are in hot water with the bishops, but for different reasons. Cardinal Timothy Dolan prayed at both conventions in spite of his public sparring with Obama, but it was a Catholic nun whose “Nuns on the Bus” pilgrimage pilloried Paul Ryan’s budget, allegedly inspired by Catholic social teaching, who stole the show in Tampa. And it was in Tampa that God appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in the party platform. Does this mean more weeks of winter? Oh, wait, that’s something else. Very confusing indeed.
The president, who tells us he is profoundly shaped by his Christian faith and its teachings, studiously avoids any attachment to a congregation or denomination. Meanwhile, he has managed to divide Black preachers over the issue of same sex marriage which, by the way, in all but a few states seems to have lost its punch as a wedge issue. Then there was Bachman, Perry, Santorum and Cain whose religious views just plain scared a lot of us. Paul Ryan’s theologian of choice seems to be the atheist, Ayn Rand. The religious right is lukewarm about Mitt, the political right still believes Barack is a Muslim, and most of us really have no idea what a Mormon is except that they seem more or less respectable and have given up or hidden from view some of their more idiosyncratic beliefs and practices. Lord, have mercy!
It always has been far more complicated than politicians want us to believe, and maybe the electorate is starting to get wiser about the fact that effusive religious proclamations, affiliations, and endorsements are not always reliable guides for strong presidential leadership. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln come to mind. Of course there’s also the possibility, disturbing to us in the church, that the electorate increasingly thinks we religious folk are merely crooks, creeps, or kooks. Or maybe there are so many conflicting religious litmus tests these days that candidates can safely ignore a few. Whatever the reason, I’m rather enjoying this respite – temporary or not – from the foolishly superficial intermingling of religion and politics in the presidential election. I do realize I’ll have to endure the incessant “God bless you and God bless the United States of America” for the rest of the campaign and beyond. You can’t have everything.
If religion and sex have dropped down the list of hot topics in the race, at least we’ve got the aforementioned money in the center of things. And here is where the church and its preachers might actually have some wisdom and perspective to offer based on centuries of thought on the meaning, dangers, opportunities, and responsibilities of wealth along with the companion sins of poverty. The good news here is that thinking and practice about money, poverty, and wealth cuts across the normal divisions in the church that politicians have learned to pander to. Rather than merely being enlisted in one side or the other’s rhetoric, we might have to actually think deeply about our traditions and texts before we go to the polls. And that would be a mingling of religion and politics I would celebrate.
John H. Thomas