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Sunday, March 30, 2008
 
THE DANGEROUS MIX OF POLITICS AND RELIGION

In the dictionaries that I have available to me, including online dictionaries, the meaning of "misspeaking" is either speaking or pronouncing incorrectly, or speaking mistakenly, inappropriately, or rashly. If I were to say that last Tuesday was one of the wettest days we’ve had this month when it was actually bone dry but stormy on Wednesday, I would have misspoken. On the other hand, if I were to say that I flew into O’Hare airport last Tuesday or Wednesday in the midst of a tornado and we were lucky to have survived a crash landing - and none of that was true - that would be an outright fabrication. One of the several dictionary meanings of fabrication is "the deliberate act of deviating from the truth." In other words lying.

Hillary Clinton’s account of her visit to Bosnia in 1996 falls in that category. It’s a lie. You don’t "misspeak" about dodging sniper fire. Not when your teenage daughter - your only child - is in mortal danger of being hit by that sniper fire. It’s remarkable enough to imagine your secret service entourage allowing you to get off a plane that has landed in the midst of sniper fire - but when you’re fabricating as opposed to misspeaking, such logical details get lost in the story telling. Hillary has tried to brush the lying aside by blaming it on sleep deprivation - but since she’s been telling the story on the stump - at different times and under different conditions, it’s hard to buy the sleep deprivation excuse - and maybe that’s why she’s lost more support than has Obama with his ex-pastor problem.

And Obama’s ex-pastor problem I what I want to talk about because even though he’s taken less of a hit than Hillary with her Bosnia story - it’s going to continue to be talked about during the general election - not just by conservative pundits, but by 527 group ads - and , until she is finally forced to concede that she will not be the Democratic nominee - by Hillary Clinton. Probably by Bill too.

I don’t know why Obama joined Trinity Church although I’m sure it wasn’t because he was told that its pastor was a fiery preacher who sometimes said outrageous things. But I can imagine why he stayed if he felt comfortable with the surroundings and the works of that church. He was doing community organizing and from what I’ve read, Trinity was and is deeply involved in community activities. And apparently, he and Jeremiah Wright hit it off. As I’ve indicated here before, I’ve listened to some of Reverend Wright’s sermonizing - and when he’s not ranting and raving and saying outrageous things, he sounds pretty much like I imagine other preachers sound in black churches, quoting from the bible and urging congregants to heed the "holy scriptures." Maybe Obama knew and related to more of the "normal" side of the man than what is being described as racist and anti American and just plain nuttiness.

But as supporters of Obama have said about this whole affair - me among them - he’s the one running for president, not his pastor. There is not supposed to be a religious litmus test for candidates for political office - but of course there is. No politician can hope to become his party’s candidate for the presidency without asserting that he (or she) is a person of faith. And not just a person of faith - but the right kind of faith. Membership in one of the major Christian denominations. And an expressed belief in the deity of Christ and that Christ is the candidate’s personal savior and the candidate’s belief that Christ died for the sins of mankind.

Obama has had to say all of these things in defending himself against the assertion that he is unfit to be president because he remained a member of a church led a by a pastor who is antithetical to the average Caucasian Christian’s view of how a Christian minister should sound. Including Hillary Clinton who had been silent on the Wright affair for a while , but in the wake of her Bosnia gaffe, now is anxious to let the world know that she wouldn’t have stayed in that kind of a church. Which I guess is easy to say if you’re not a black women with a lifetime of black experience and living on the south side of Chicago.

Frankly, I’m less concerned with the nuttiness of Jeremiah Wright than I am with the need for Obama to defend himself for having the man as his spiritual guru. From what I’ve been able to discover by doing a bit of basic research, Wright is highly regarded in black religious circles and is no more nutty in some of the things he has said in the past than ministers of the far right are saying all the time, including John Hagee and Rod Parsley, the two nut jobs that John McCain has sought out to be his "spiritual advisors" - a euphemistic way of describing a conduit to the evangelical types to whom they appeal.

I’m more concerned with the prominence and influence that matters of religion, however obscure, play in the business of electing a president. I remember when Obama was running for Senator in Illinois against Alan Keyes who said that Jesus wouldn’t support Obama because he supported abortion rights. Said Keyes, spreading his arms apart - "Christ is over here, Sen. Obama is over there: the two don't look the same." To which Obama responded that he didn’t appreciate being lectured about Christianity. "That's why I have a pastor," he said. "That's why I have a Bible. That's why I have my own prayer. And I don't think any of you are particularly interested in having Mr. Keyes lecture you about your faith. What you're interested in is solving problems like jobs and health care and education. I'm not running to be the minister of Illinois. I'm running to be its United States senator."

I applauded that response then - but I have to say that I’ve winced when Obama has felt the need in the current campaign to assure audiences in stump speeches that he is indeed a Christian and that "Jesus Christ is my savior." Whenever I hear a politician say something like that - and especially when that politician is a man of Obama’s intelligence - I have to wonder if that is something he truly believes - or something he feels he has to say to establish himself as being one with his audience. To his credit, he has also said that he doesn’t think that belief in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. He told a questioner in Greensboro, North Carolina the other day that Jews and Muslims who live moral lives are just as much children of God as he is.

Obama’s speech in the wake of the furor raised over the inflammatory clips from Wright’s sermons has been praised by many, including me. He did a good job, taking the narrow issue of Wright and his relationship with Wright and expanding it to a challenge to the nation to confront issues of race in ways that we’ve never confronted them before. It seems that, although he’s taken a hit reflected in somewhat lower polling numbers, the speech held that hit to a much lower level than the one taken by Hillary - an indication perhaps that although the Republicans aren’t going to let the issue die, it’s not going to be the weapon they hoped it would be.

But still, the nagging concern remains that the religious beliefs of both candidates and voters have a huge influence on the outcome of national elections. We pay lip service to the concept of "separation of church and state" - but there is no separation when it comes to the business of electing a president. No atheist can think of running for the office. Nor a Muslim. A Jew was on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate - but it’ll be a snowy day in Miami when there’s a Jewish candidate for president. And I’ve no doubt that some votes were lost to Al Gore because of Joe Lieberman’s faith.

The fact that a candidate for the presidency spoke to us as though we all were adults, as Obama did on March 18 is an encouraging sign, perhaps a harbinger of future discourse on a topic that is usually discussed at the level of a parent reading a fairy tail to a child. Of course if that is attempted, most likely the first people to complain that such a discussion has no place in a presidential campaign are the same ones who apply a religious litmus test to anyone even hinting at a run for the office. Still, one can hope. No one expected a candidate to discuss race in a presidential election and no one could have anticipated the positive reaction to that discussion.

Maybe we are getting close to being ready for someone to open a frank discussion on what role religion should play in our elections - or whether it should play any role at all. How much more refreshing that would be than having a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, when asked to describe the "defining mistake" of his life respond that " I have no doubt of what the greatest mistake in my life has been. And that is that it took me probably 30 years before I realized that Jesus Christ is my personal savior." That was Tom Tancredo when he was still in the Republican theocracy primaries. I call them that because the back and forth gibes between the Republican candidates was as much about who had the most "faith" as who had the best ideas about how to tackle the nation’s problems. Think about how well Huckabee did in states with a large "evangelical population." People voting for him - not because they thought he was the best candidate but because they shared his religious beliefs. And now the pundits are commenting on Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Bob Casey’s endorsement of Obama as potentially helping him with "Catholic voters." Casey is a Catholic. He’s for Obama - therefore it follows that some Catholic voters will also be for Obama.

It’s a scary thing, more so in this election year than in any other I’ve witnessed in decades. Particularly at a time when a major topic of consideration in this election is the threat that the world faces from religious fanatics of the Muslim faith. They’re crazy and want to destroy us. And we have a Republican candidate being spiritually advised by a minister who thinks Christians need to go to war against "the false religion": of Islam and destroy it!! If that isn’t a good enough reason to move religion as far away as we can from politics and from political discourse and to absolutely resist the influence it brings to bear on the outcome of national elections - I don’t know what is.