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Not too hot, not too cold

Campaign 2008 | Americans prefer vague religious generalities from their political leaders

Issue: "Survivors," Sept. 29, 2007

It's a remarkable thing that some people judge a person's religion by how much change it has produced-while others measure it by how little.

It's a hard issue for a political candidate these days to get just right. Like Goldilocks, the American public is prone to register its "Too hot!" or "Too cold!" on the barest of evidence. The two most famous Southern Baptists to occupy the U.S. presidency in recent times-Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton-illustrate vividly how tricky it is to get the porridge's temperature just right.

So what do you want now from Mitt Romney? Someone whose Mormonism has shaped him thoroughly, fashioning his views on every policy he ever thinks about? But then he's a fanatic. Or someone whose religion is just an accessory to his life-about as important as the brand of suit he wears? But then he's a mere nominalist.

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Or Mike Huckabee. Is it just too damning that before he served as governor of Arkansas, he was a Baptist minister? For some, that's dangerous stuff, bordering on radicalism; he might as well have been an imam.

Admittedly, a big chunk of the electorate seems more comfortable (and that's the operative word, mind you, since Americans just can't stand any discomfort on such matters) when Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama mounts a pulpit somewhere and fervently quotes one of the Old Testament prophets about social justice-and then shows the good sense to move on and not to press matters too far. Not too much; not too little.

But we should hardly suppose that this delicate balancing act is a new thing for American politicians. Today, we tend to honor a long-standing custom established when our country's founders made a deliberate choice to exclude any official reference to Jesus Christ from official statements like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. From then on, our country's leaders have always tended to speak only in vague generalities about God-and almost never with any specificity about the Trinitarian God of the Bible. Today, it may be almost obligatory to wind up a civic address with a vigorous "God bless America!" (although it takes a stretch to imagine Rudy Giuliani, the quintessentially secular guy, doing that)-but in any case, that's about as "religious" as anyone's going to get.

But neither should we think that all this reticence springs only from custom. More profoundly, those who are running for office fail to root public policy issues in anchors of faith simply because it has never crossed their minds to do so. Most of them couldn't do it if their lives depended on it-simply because nobody has ever encouraged them or taught them how to think that way.

Take, as I've said here before, the simple biblical concept that all human beings are made in the image of God. For us who are Christians, that understanding has profound implications for dozens of public policy issues-ranging from abortion to euthanasia to race relations to welfare to war to weapons of mass destruction.

Nor is the thought of being made in God's image a particularly narrow or novel or "sectarian" concept. Yet it is all but unthinkable in our age to hear a candidate for office start with a concept like being made in the image of God and move on to help voters think their way through to consistent and logical conclusions. Instead, what we are asked to believe about abortion and race and war has to stand somehow on its own, unrelated to any so-called first principles-much less, any explicitly biblical concepts.

The terrible implication, whether spelled out or not, is that the Bible and the great principles of the Christian faith really don't count for much. They're fine to hold in private, but please, please, keep them there. So far as the important issues of life are concerned, the things we discuss in politics, for example-we'd much prefer that they not be linked in any demonstrable way to a person's faith or what he or she may have learned at church.

But that makes about as much sense as saying it's irrelevant to know who made big contributions to a candidate's campaign or where the candidate learned his or her political philosophy. The roads by which we got here do, after all, make a difference.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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