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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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Better Than a Minister, a Priest, and a Rabbi

A Protestant, two Catholics, and a Mormon walk into a bar.  The Protestant is of the progressive type, but doesn’t seem to have a congregation to call home.  He orders a bottle of domestic beer and nurses half of it over the next hour.  One of the Catholics bellies up to the bar, gets his first mug from the tap, and invites a couple of the union guys over to swap stories of growing up in the hard scrapple life of a Pennsylvania coal town.  The other Catholic asks for a single malt scotch, eyeing the union guys with thinly veiled suspicion.  Meanwhile, the Mormon stands around nervously, looking out of place, sipping lemonade and telling everyone who walks by that there’s no vodka in it.

I know.  This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.  What these four have in common, of course, is that one is president of the United States and the other three could become president one day.   It’s pretty unlikely that we’ll ever find the four of them in a bar together.  But it is interesting to think about what this mythical guys’ night out reveals about the changing character of American religious belief and practice.

President Obama, like many Americans these days, grew up unchurched.  His coming to faith was not of the hard core born again variety of the old sawdust trail, but a slower spiritual and intellectual evolution guided by a pastor who helped him discover the intersections of a Protestant faith of the liberal/liberationist variety with social justice commitments forged in his community organizing work on the predominantly Black and impoverished south side of Chicago.  But, like many Protestants from the old Mainline, Obama’s well thought out faith doesn’t translate into much public religiosity or into strong institutional loyalty.  Burned by the searing politics of race in his first presidential run, Obama carefully avoids any congregational or denominational labels at this point.  Whether or not that’s only for pragmatic political reasons, Obama’s stance represents many younger Protestants who appear to feel little need for organized church life or regular Sunday attendance, aligning themselves more with a constellation of spiritual and moral values than a particular religious tradition.

Joe Biden and Paul Ryan reveal the growing divide in American Catholic life.  Biden is a classic product of the old blue collar, immigrant Catholicism that entered into the mainstream of American life around the time of John Kennedy’s election.  Patriotic, friendly to organized labor, loyal to the Democratic party, these Catholics matured under the liberalizing theological tendencies of Vatican II.  Paul Ryan is a very different kind of Catholic, reflecting the more affluent suburban culture and financial interests of a generation once removed from Biden’s blue collar roots.  He also reflects the conservative theological backlash against Vatican II represented today by the last two Popes and their episcopal appointments in the United States.  Ironically, both Biden and Ryan are under attack by the hierarchy, Biden for his support of reproductive rights, Ryan for the impact of his proposed budget on the poor.  And, characteristic of most Catholics today, neither seems particularly perturbed to be scolded by his bishop!

Then there’s the enigmatic Mormon.  Mitt Romney is by every account a very committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  A local and regional church leader during his career at Bain, a major philanthropic supporter of the church, Romney reflects the religious discipline and familial loyalties of his church.  At the same time he clearly doesn’t want to talk about it.  While his discomfort, like Obama’s, may reflect political calculation, it also points to a more general ambivalence among Mormons toward the non-Mormon world which is both mission field and hostile critic at the same time, a world that often still clings to  anti-Mormon caricatures and stereotypes. As the Mormon church grows and moves more and more into the American cultural mainstream outside of its base in places like Utah, it struggles to find an alternative to a protective sectarianism without provoking a backlash.  Romney embodies this communal struggle and places its anxiety on full display.

Absent from this little scene are Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists to name some of the emerging religious traditions in the United States.  Except for Joe Lieberman, no Jew has broken into the club.  And, most remarkably this year, Evangelicals are excluded, Bachman, Perry, Cain and company having flamed out spectacularly in the vaudeville show called the Republican primaries.  The Protestant Evangelical world is hardly going away.  But their political humbling this year is a reminder that no one religious tradition in this country, no matter how self-confident, will ever completely dominate the field.

I’m not sure what our little vignette at the bar tells us about the role of religion in American political life today or about how the candidates’ faith will play out in the campaign. Voters’ religious beliefs will quietly and in some cases decisively shape choices and decisions at the polls.  But as for political headlines I suspect religion will be a bit player this year, though who knows?  I didn’t predict the Trinity UCC drama four years ago.  What my little reverie at the bar does do is open a window on the changing patterns of belief and practice that are transforming American religious life today.  And it shows how every tradition is struggling to find its place in that changing scene.  That in itself is well worth our attention.  Meanwhile, drink up gentlemen.  It’s time to get out on the campaign trail.

John H. Thomas

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