I was talking with an old friend, a longtime Democrat, and she asked if I knew what religion a certain presidential candidate was. I replied that I didn’t know and hoped I’d never find out. We started to laugh, and she nodded.
I didn’t mean it and yet I meant it, for we have come to an odd pass regarding candidates and their faith. It’s not as if faith is unimportant, it’s always important. But we are asking our political figures—mere flawed politicians—to put forward and talk about their faith to a degree that has become odd. We push them against the wall and do a kind of theological frisk on them. We didn’t use to.
Forty years ago, a firm-jawed, silver-haired Michigan governor made a serious bid for the presidency. He was well-funded, well-credentialed, and was done in by one of those campaign gaffes in which a throwaway line becomes a death knell. He had changed his position on Vietnam, and in explaining his previous support said he’d been “brainwashed” on the issue. Americans don’t like their presidents to be people who’d allow their brains to be sent to the dry cleaners. Republicans in particular were not amused. So he was over.
His name was George Romney. He was Mitt’s father. And no one back in those narrow-minded, benighted days seems to have cared that much that he was a Mormon.
Now it’s an issue. Now we debate the candidate’s faith.
This is change. Is it progress?
It doesn’t feel like it.
In 1968 we were, as now, a religious country. But when we walked to the polls, we thought we were about to hire a president, not a Bible study teacher.
No one cared, really, that Richard Nixon was a Quaker. They may have been confused by it, but they weren’t upset. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, was not Greek Orthodox but Episcopalian. Nobody much noticed. Nelson Rockefeller of New York was not an Episcopalian but a Baptist. Do you know what Lyndon Johnson’s religion was? He was a member of the Disciples of Christ, but in what appeared to be the same way he was a member of the American Legion: You’re in politics, you join things. Hubert Humphrey was born Lutheran, attended Methodist churches, and was rumored to be a Congregationalist. This didn’t quite reach the level of mystery because nobody quite cared.
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It is true that everyone knew Jimmy Carter was an evangelical Christian, but that was famous because they were a new and rising force in American politics in 1976, and after Watergate his immersion in faith seemed refreshing. He was a Southern Baptist who left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 after many arguments, including over whether Mormons were Christians. He said yes. No one knows what religion Jerry Ford was and, just to add some mystery, I’m not going to go to Ask.com about it, as I did with the others. Ford didn’t publicly share his heart on these matters. He was of a generation that knew some things are actually, we should brace ourselves here, private. Ronald Reagan was Presbyterian, but his faith was both ardent and lightly held. He prayed a lot, and when he did he knew who was listening. But he was so unused to the normal ways of Christian service that, Mike Deaver once told me, he once happily dipped the bread in the wine as communion was passed.
America cared that Jack Kennedy was Catholic, for a while. We’d never had a Catholic president, and only one Catholic major-party presidential nominee before him, Democrat Al Smith in 1928. But Smith was rather too exotic in a number of ways, with his New York accent and his ward-heeler air. He was a great man, but a city boy in a small-town nation.
Kennedy—urbane, sophisticated, taught by Harold Laski at the London School of Economics—made the most of his problem, giving a great speech that put his foes on the defensive.
But it is an odd thing that as a nation we seemed more liberal on these issues then than today. I think of JFK hearing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s father said he wouldn’t vote for Kennedy because he was Catholic. Kennedy is reported to have said, “Imagine Martin Luther King’s father being a bigot!” Then, being Jack Kennedy, he detached and said philosophically, “But then we all have our fathers.”
Bill Clinton was a Southern Baptist. No one gave much thought to what Bush One was, including, perhaps, Bush One, until he was older. But he’d been raised among “the frozen chosen,” which is how some denominations used to refer teasingly to Episcopalians.
His son, George W. Bush, became president a few years after an intense Christian conversion that was by all accounts transforming. In the way of many recent converts, in the great whoosh of feeling they often experience, his presidency came to take much of its shape from a certain emotionalism. Certainly there were around him a number of transported spirits, and pious connivers.
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There are some people who believe faith doesn’t belong in politics. But it does, and it is there inextricably. The antislavery movement, the temperance movement, the civil rights movement, the antiabortion movement, all were political movements animated in large part by religious feeling. It’s not that it doesn’t matter. You bring your whole self into the polling booth, including your faith and your sense of right and wrong, good and bad, just as presidents bring their whole selves into the Oval Office. I can’t imagine how a president could do his job without faith.
But faith is also personal. You can be touched by a candidate’s faith, or interested in his apparent lack of it. It’s never wholly unimportant, but you should never see a politician as a leader of faith, and we should not ask a man who made his rise in the grubby world of politics to act as if he is an exemplar of his faith, or an explainer or defender of it
We have the emphasis wrong. It’s out of kilter. And the result is a Mitt Romney being harassed on radio shows about the particulars of his faith, and Hillary Clinton—a new-class yuppie attorney and board member—announcing how important her Methodist faith is and how much she loves wearing her diamond cross. For all I know, for all you know, it is true. But there is about it an air of patronizing the rubes and boobs.
We should lighten up on demanding access to their hearts. It is impossible for us to know their hearts. It’s barely possible to know your own. Faith is important but it’s also personal. When we force political figures to tell us their deepest thoughts on it, they’ll be tempted to act, to pretend. Do politicians tend to give in to temptation? Most people do. Are politicians better than most people? Quick, a show of hands. I don’t think so either.