05/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

God and Man in the White House

This is not a brief about religion; it is about religion in politics. I recognize that at this point in the history of our great nation, inveighing against the current situation is akin to standing on the beach and yelling at the tide, but the burlesque of the past few months make the temptation impossible to resist.

I hope you'll agree that people can believe what they want. This is America. The Virgin Mary is seen in a California tortilla while thousands of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn await the messiah. It's a colorful country.

And yet...

Let's begin with Barack Obama and the man who has anointed himself -- forgive me, I'm paraphrasing -- Pope of the Black Church, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama joined this church twenty years ago because of the sad fact that to be viable in national politics a candidate is required to profess "faith," so people "of faith" will not run from him like he has ontological cooties. He claims the spotlight loving Rev. Wright "led me to my faith." Good for Senator Obama. But what, you might reasonably ask, about all those terrible -- and very quotable, and extremely YouTube-friendly -- things the pastor said? You know: the God damn America material?

Anyone who has been paying attention for the past four hundred years will admit that black people have a legitimate beef with how certain things have worked out. And sometimes the rhetoric can get a little heated. But the fact is Rev. Wright, despite his towering self-importance, doesn't matter. Barack Obama is on such a higher level than his former minister, it's hard to believe he looked to him for actual guidance in anything other than how to appear that he belonged in a pew.

Enter John McCain and his Hitler-invoking endorser, the Rev. Hagee. Yes, the Straight Talker was not a member of Rev. Hagee's church, and the author of Jerusalem Countdown did not marry him and Cindy, nor did he baptize their kids. But McCain did actively seek the endorsement of this man who believes God sent a hunter to go after the Jews in order to create the state of Israel, and referred to the Catholic church as "the great whore" (Hagee's way with words is undeniable). I feel badly for McCain. He was, after all, in his 2.0 version someone who called people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." Clearly, his alliance with Hagee was entirely tactical. But it's sad that he, too, has devolved into just another politician who has sought the prickly embrace of the poisonously religious.

There was a time before the Advent of Jimmy Carter when a politician's relationship with the universe was a private matter about which he or she could choose to reflect deeply, or not. And we didn't have to know what had occurred in anyone's personal Gethsemane. But now religion is just another signifier, like lapel pins, an item to be checked off when we're evaluating would-be presidents. Allow me to quote Eric Hoffer: "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."

The shame does not lie with Wright and Hagee. History has shown that wherever civilization exists, dangerous buffoons will assert themselves. The shame is that American politics has degenerated to the point where these toxic God-wielders are actively courted by those who would be our leaders. Yes, Obama and McCain repudiated them, but what does it say about where we are as a nation that men like Wright and Hagee matter in the first place?

The French have barely gotten over their Elliot Spitzer-induced hysteria. Our latest religious wars must be giving them fits.