The blending of religion and politics is back in the headlines. Again. And the latest examples make it clear that combining these two isn't inherently good or inherently bad. It all depends on how it's done. And even more importantly, why it's done.
The extremes on this subject can be found in two recent stories: the protests being led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, and John McCain's increasingly absurd pandering to the religious right.
Let's start with McCain. His latest panderfest came in an interview with Beliefnet that included the head-scratching claim that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation," prompting blogger Steve Benen to respond that McCain has "sworn to uphold the Constitution on more than a few occasions. One would like to think he's read it enough times to know this is nonsense."
McCain also delivered this gem: "I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles...personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith."
When the predictable uproar ensued, McCain responded with a clarification. Followed by another clarification to clarify his clearly not-clear-enough original clarification. (If nothing else, we can rest assured that a McCain White House would be second to none in clarifying things.)
This PR wreck is but the latest misguided attempt by the driver of the Straight Talk Express to win over faith-based voters. It's been a circuitous and confusing journey. Perhaps his spiritual GPS is on the fritz.
Like many a religious parable, the tale of McCain's evolving position on religion in politics goes way back. In February of 2000, in response to taped phone message by Pat Robertson sent to Michigan residents accusing a McCain aide of being anti-religious, McCain said: "The political tactics of division and slander are not our values. They are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country... Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance."
In the years since then -- and especially since he began running for the 2008 GOP nomination -- McCain has, to be generous, rethought his take on pandering quite a bit. To be sure, McCain is not alone in this: the current crop of Republican candidates is running toward the Almighty as fast as it's running away from African-Americans. But while he may be lagging in the polls, when it comes to Religious Panderfest '08, McCain has opened up a comfortable lead.
McCain's "conversion" on the religion-in-politics front has not been without a few moments of bewilderment -- not of the Mother-Teresa-questioning-her-faith kind, but rather of the hard-time-keeping-his-stories-straight kind.
In May, in the midst of a spring spent kissing various rings of those "agents of intolerance," McCain's campaign told the AP that he was an Episcopalian, while noting that his four younger children are Baptists and that he attends a Baptist church when at home in Arizona.
In June, McCain told the McClatchy Newspapers, that he found the Baptist church more fulfilling than the Episcopal church, but still considered himself Episcopalian.
Then, in September, when asked by an AP reporter about how his Episcopalian faith affects his political life, McCain replied: "It plays a role in my life. By the way, I'm not Episcopalian. I'm Baptist. Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No." I guess it depends on what your definition of "all the time" is.
Of course, this being McCain, a clarification of the Episcopalian/Baptist flip-flop soon followed: "The most important thing is that I am a Christian, and I don't have anything else to say about the issue."
And he didn't. Until he spoke to Beliefnet shortly thereafter, misrepresenting the Constitution and casting aspersions on all future non-Christian presidential candidates.
None of which is to suggest that religion and matters of faith should have no role in politics. Contrast McCain's unseemly position shifting with the resolute actions of the Myanmar monks. Their growing protests were sparked by a rise in fuel prices but have since grown into a widespread uprising against the country's military dictatorship. As Seth Mydans notes in the New York Times, Myanmar has as many monks as it does soldiers, about 400,000 in each group. "The
military rules by force," Mydans writes, "but the monks retain ultimate moral authority."
The monks are using religion to unite and inspire people against a brutal regime; McCain is using it to divide people for transient political gain.
And McCain is not the only one wielding religion as a campaign weapon. I've been hearing whispers from a variety of political insiders that efforts are well underway in a number of GOP campaigns to use Mitt Romney's Mormonism to undermine his candidacy.
Of course, candidates and their campaigns are not wholly to blame here. This kind of ugly pandering wouldn't work if the electorate refused to allow it. Until then, we'll just have to be treated to the incessant, depressing and profoundly cynical spectacle of presidential candidates not talking about their religious views -- repeatedly and vociferously.