As usual, this presidential election will make religion an issue. Yet, the religion at the center of "Decision 2012" will not originate in any church, temple or mosque. The candidates will not contest each other's faiths as much as they will propose different versions of an American civil religion.
I have recently written on American civil religion, and understand its lack of cultural cache; it doesn't resonate like "the culture wars" or "the Tea Party." And while the term does not get used in common conversation, manifestations of it -- from the Great Seal to motto's such as "One Nation Under God" and "In God We Trust" -- swirl around American politics. So we do generally agree that something like a civil religion does exist; what is "God Bless America" if not an expression of civil religion? In short, because most Americans have faith in God, their leaders inevitably address the nation through that faith.
So where's the rub? It lies within the different ways presidents (or candidates) have presented and manipulated this relationship between God and nation.
In his convention speech, Mitt Romney made very little of his Mormon faith, his work in the church or how that church might influence how he sees his relationship between God and the nation. And perhaps because of this, his "narrative" was dangerously idolatrous.
For Romney, God blesses America because it is America and America is good because it is America and America will succeed because it is America. To put this sensibility in the terms of a common religious expression, let us bless ourselves: In the name of America, the nation, and the holy nation -- Amen.
But Romney's not being blasphemous as much as patriotic, right? Yet consider what might happen when America falters under a Romney administration, as it inevitably will. What would failure reveal? It is dangerous to sacralize the nation for in doing so one eliminates almost any perspective outside the entity that might need redemption. But that approach is how candidate Romney can attack President Obama as element almost foreign to the purity of Romney's (imaginary) America. If the president isn't part of America, then who or what is? However, as an adult, Romney should know that nothing makes a person grow up faster than when their immature illusions get tested. What would become of a nation led by such a simplistic dreamer -- especially one who seems willfully disengaged from influences of his church and even his own father's experiences.
The Republicans can harp on Obama's promises and his call for hope, but we would do well to remember the most serious passage from the president's inaugural address. Following a long section in which he outlined the challenges facing the nation, Obama asked Americans to act like adults, "to set aside childish things"; to accept a "new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world..."
And in the most theologically sophisticated passage of his address, Obama concluded: "The source of our confidence [is] the knowledge that God calls us to shape an uncertain destiny." Adults recognize that promises and expressions of hope are buffeted by the reality that fate is not something we own.
Obama asked Americans to promise to themselves that they would become less self-centered and more selfless. It remains an important antidote to Romney's banal theology of Americana.