To which one imagines Pat griping, “Thanks, but why couldn’t you pipe up like this in ’88?”
Of course, maybe God did tell Robertson to pack it in during his own presidential bid, and maybe the 700 Club commander-in-chief just isn’t a very good listener… in which case, back to your handicapping forms!
Amy Sullivan, a sociologist-in-training at Princeton who suffers from a journalistic habit, put some money on the race recently with a piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer on “How Democrats Can Talk of Religion” (that peculiar “of” in the hed, not Sullivan’s fault, is a clue to how the paper views the subject: archaic, old-timey, ye olde God).
After charging Kerry with relying on stock lines when it comes to faith, Sullivan lays this one on us: “Kerry and his fellow Democratic candidates are slowly recognizing that they need to think and talk about religion during this campaign.”
This has become a cliche of centrist punditry. The only thing that excuses it here is the fact that Sullivan studies religion in America and actually knows something about it. Surely more than the stats she rat-a-tats at us in her three “rules” for would-be God-fearing Dems, figures such as “Seventy percent say they want their president to be a man of faith,” and “more than 60 percent of Americans believe that Bush mentions his faith ‘just the right amount.'”
That one is especially hard to take as anything more than the superficial harvest of pop surveys, given that most Americans are unaware of how often Bush laces his speech with unattributed scriptural citations — and that most political reporters need a phrase as obvious as“wonderworking power” to pick up on the fact that there’s a sermon going on.
But once she gets away from the numbers (good advice for all religion writers, we think), Sullivan gets smart, observing that “Dean got caught in a common journalistic trap when interviewers started pelting him with questions that belong more on a Christian e-dating site,” such as “What’s your favorite book of the New Testament?” and “Do you feel like Job?”
She’s right — even thoughtful journalists approach the question of religion and the candidates as if they were taking dictation for a personal ad in Christianity Today. Sullivan points out that race and class factor into this oversimplification.
“Democrats lose their religious inhibitions in black churches,” she writes. “Perhaps the novelty of syncopated hymns loosens them up.” And candidates do indeed tend to declare their readiness to let go and let God help them win the Southern primaries, where them po’ white folks just loves their old-timey religion.
But journalists don’t so much challenge these assumptions as reflect them. Not just those who fall for piety-on-demand campaiging, but also the more cynical veterans who dismiss pulpit stumping as so much pandering, and thus unworthy of serious reporting.
Sullivan suggests that Democrats transcend this cheap dichotomy by “make [religion] theirs by talking about issues of public, instead of private, morality.” The problem with this solution is that most politicians have been doing exactly that for a long time. “Morality” is a concept that long pre-dates Western religion, but history has fated it to be inextricably bound up with spiritual ideas and religious traditions in contemporary America. “Religion” is always there in the public speech of politicians, whether journalists — or the rest of us — notice it or not.
George Bush understands this, and uses it to his advantage. Sullivan points to Kucinich‘s declaration that “The work of government ought to be advancing spiritual principles in our everyday life” and his citation of Matthew 25 as evidence that among the Democrats, only the guys on the margins get what’s going on in the center.
Thank God she’s wrong. Beliefnet offers a guide to the religious bon mots of the candidates, but you need to look further than their answers to questions about their fave Bible books and which of the 12 disciples was the cutest. Despite what journalists decided was his “religion problem,” Dean got it, speaking several times of mundane matters such as social security and school funding as, at their most basic levels, “spiritual” questions. And maybe Kerry gets it, too.
Sullivan scolds him for his pat religion response of “I don’t think it’s very conservative to cross that line of division between church and state in America,” and so do we — no spirit or poetry in that workhorse.
But a friend of The Revealer‘s who covered the New Hampshire primary (disclosure: The Revealer supports no candidates. Literally.) spoke of a different Kerry he encountered at a small event, a guy who spoke of the Catholicism of his childhood, of falling away from the faith, of finding himself pulled back toward a faith both the same as and different from that which he’d known, and most of all of being guided in his political and spiritual life — here our friend braced for some watered-down version of W.’s “Jesus is my fave” oath — by what he called “that bright, shining line” between church and state.
That — an implicit recognition of the brilliance and mystery that attends good theology — is religion in politics, and Democrats, Republicans, and especially journalists could use more of it.