America's Twisted Marriage of Religion and Politics

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

Barack Obama's church-related quandary is just the latest example of American politicians' perilous dance with religion. In a presidential campaign infused like never before with the candidates' efforts to sell their religious beliefs as best-fitting an illusory mainstream, Obama hasn't quite pulled it off, although he is in a far better position after his historic speech in Philadelphia.

Obama's experience should provide another strong indictment of the perverted use of religion in American politics, but the focus has been much narrower, trained on this one pastor and this one church. This is a great shame, although it's hard to deny that Obama should have seen this coming. It's also hard not to fault Obama's need for a religious advisory committee advising his campaign, and for providing a political role to Wright (most of the other campaigns, including Clinton's have gone the same route.) What is wrong with just going to church and not talking about it? Or just not going to church?

Obama is hardly alone in his embrace of the unseemly mix of politics and spirituality. Religion as a political marketing tool is nothing new, but this year's campaign is notable if only because the three remaining candidates were not previously known for being happy Christian warriors (as opposed to, say, George W. Bush).

In Obama's case, his initial clumsiness notwithstanding, it is clearly the addition of race to an already combustible mix that his detractors have cunningly latched on. How else can one explain that John McCain's recent endorsement by a virulently anti-Catholic televangelist has gone basically unchallenged, with the GOP candidate unmoved by calls to rebuke John Magee. Hopefully, this comfortable bigotry exhibited by the Episcopalian McCain won't play too well in, say, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio in November (then again, with Obama having been tarred by the Clinton campaign as a hater of Geraldine Ferraro and by extension of all older white Catholic women, Catholic voters in those states may have a tough time picking this fall).

Yet there are worse religious extremists in the GOP than McCain, probably half of the Republican members of congress and governors, including presidential runner-up Mike Huckabee, whose campaign was centered on a breathtakingly stupid literal interpretation of the Bible. This didn't stop the supposedly secular media from a lengthy infatuation with the former Baptist preacher. Essentially ignored were Huckabee's hateful views on a range of issues, from the quarantine of people with AIDS as recently as the 1990s, to equating abortion with slavery. Much more was made of Huckabee's new-style Christianity calling for compassion for "the weak." That is until until "the weak," undocumented immigrants for instance, got between Huckabee and a suddenly attainable White House. Huckabee did apologize, though, for calling Mormonism a devil cult, but of course the harm was done to the Mormon in the race, Mitt Romney.

Romney himself tried to pull the old "as long as we all believe in one God, it's all good" routine, much in vogue with politicians of minority religious beliefs (Joe Lieberman came up with his own version in 2000, tempered by upsettingly self-deprecating humor meant to demystify his Orthodox Judaism to vaguely anti-Semitic voters). But Christian conservatives never quite warmed up to Romney and his Mormonism, dooming his candidacy. It's not unfathomable that a number of voters in 2000 rejected Lieberman's Judaism.

The Anglo-Saxon religious hypocrisy that pervades American politics allows for the most dreadful private behavior, as long as the candidate, when caught, is suitably contrite, seeks "spiritual guidance" and goes to church. A lot.

This is how we ended up in this campaign with a group of holier-than-thou Republican presidential candidates married a total of nine times among the top five (including one-timers Romney and Huckabee). A religious highlight of the campaign was Pat Robertson's endorsement of thrice-married born-again Catholic Rudy Giuliani, he who conducted a lengthy affair with his current wife while still married to Donna Hanover, the mother of his children, who learned of his planned divorce live on local TV.

This is also how we witness a former president, Bill Clinton, in an open marriage to a possible future president, with his wife's increasingly publicized Methodist faith seemingly not interfering much with their marital arrangement. No one has clutched a bible tighter and ambled into a church with as much purpose as Bill did in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky disaster. From his Baptist religion's perspective, of course, he compounded his awful sin of adultery with a lie; his wife, we think, only lied about it, but that is also a sin in her Methodist faith. What saved the day for the Clintons, though, in addition to their reinvigorated Christian zeal, is that Bill signed the Defense of Marriage Act which bans the Federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, right around the time of the Lewinsky and other Clinton sex scandals. This shameful act was surely seen by the Clintons as indispensable to the public defense of their own marriage (and the White House) and is just one of the many betrayals of the couple's core supporters (why their current backers don't see this is a mystery, and a story for another day).

Including Clinton, nearly all the other candidates in this year's presidential race have opposed same-sex marriage, mostly based on their religious beliefs, as John Edwards made clear. In general, gay sex remains far more taboo than its straight version: Bill Clinton got away (gets away?) with sleeping with female interns and assorted subalterns, but Rep. Mark Foley was hunted out of Washington for trying to sleep with male pages. Unless they're Eliot Spitzer (felled by his own version of the Crusades), male politicians can also comfortably get away with sex with female prostitutes: John Vitter, a lunatic Bible-thumping Senator from Louisiana remains in office to this day, not least because of his appropriately Christian response to being caught (multiple mentions of God and forgiveness; little detail about the actual act to be forgiven). Ethics and laws don't matter much in American government if you can make a religious enough statement of contrition.

For 25 years, many in the Republican Party have hoped to install a theocratic government and have succeeded in incremental ways, with Bush as their most recent standard-bearer. The Democratic Party, fearful as always, has gone along with the merging of politics and religion, not wanting to be branded the party of the atheists (in the same way half the Democratic Senators, including Clinton, voted for the Iraq war so they wouldn't be called the party of the pacifists). One recent and sad example of Democrats' attempt at blunting such accusations is the religious caucus in the upcoming Denver convention. This, however, is sure to backfire, as the party is basically saying that you can't be Latino and/or African-American and/or religious: all three caucuses are held at the same time (as are others.) Maybe it's just that the Democratic National Committee wants to avoid fiery sermons by Jeremiah Wright-style black preachers.

That the United States is a religious country in which 62% believe in the devil, far more than believe in evolution, is one thing. But why drag out religion at every political opportunity, when no ostensibly spiritual politician lives remotely in accordance with his or her publicly stated beliefs? In fact, it's a pretty sure bet that, as they have for centuries, the more public figures exhibit religious fervor, the more likely it is that they are living a lie in their personal life. It may be naive to ask for a little (Christian?) humility, privacy and, more importantly, tolerance, including for the non-religious among us. But it is not more naive than to think that once in a while the unstable fusion of politics and religion won't explode in one or another politician's face, as it sadly just did in Obama's.