09/21/2012 09:01 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

God and Jerusalem


The late addition of "God" and "Jerusalem" to the Democratic platform was an embarrassment to democracy. It was an embarrassment first because those who voted against it were apparently in the majority. But it was foremost an embarrassment because of its cynical calculation that kowtowing to God and Jerusalem is an effective campaign strategy.

In a recent blog, I argued that religion is, very often, political and that it should not be, but often is, ignored and marginalized by Western, liberal, secular media and politicians. Religion is as politically salient as economics and morality. At about the same time, distinguished social scientist Scott Atran had the prescience to publish an article with a similar thesis and some similar points in Foreign Policy. Atran writes:

Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good... But religion can also hinder a society's ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don't understand what religion is all about. That's the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.

Religious motivations can keep societies hanging together in the face of adversity and inspire revolutionary fervor and even success against all odds. From America's founding to Egypt's so-called Arab Spring, religious belief abounds and has deep political ramifications. Often enough, religious belief just bursts out into civil society, demanding attention.

Sometimes, though, religion oozes into society in ways that are beneath civility.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public Life, nearly 20 percent of Americans who are aware of Romney's faith would not vote for him solely for that reason. There is a positive spin to these stats -- an overwhelming majority is not adversely affected by Romney's Mormonism.

Religion is a hugely important determinant of American voter preference. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president (you are more likely to be elected president if you are gay). And not just any religion will do -- the Christian religion is the single most important. Only 58 percent of Americans would vote for a Muslim; once again you are more likely to get elected in the U.S. if you are gay than if you are a Muslim. These numbers drop dramatically along party lines: of Republican respondents only 47 percent would vote for a Muslim and only 48 percent would vote for an atheist.

The prejudice against Romney's Mormonism may not prove detrimental in the forthcoming election because 17 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim (up from 12 percent in October 2008). That figure is inflated by the 34 percent of conservative Republicans who think Obama is a Muslim. And the probability that a conservative Republican would vote for a Muslim Democrat is zero (not according to the polls but according to my best guess). Even though over 99 percent of U.S. voters would vote for a Christian, as many are uncomfortable with Obama's "religion" as they are with Romney's Mormonism.

What all these stats show is that religious prejudice and ignorance will be well represented in the voting booth.

In 2012, we, as a society, should be beyond religious prejudice and ignorance. Elected officials should be the most wise and just, not the most religious. As Samuel Adams wisely and justly wrote: "He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of this country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man."

The president, and every member of Congress, for that matter, should be elected for character and competence, not for religious adherence.

In addition, in a country with a religious majority there is also always a practical concern -- the majority is always tempted to impose its will on the minority.

U.S. Christians need to look more closely at countries where they are not in the majority to remind themselves of the temptation to be vicious to the religious minority.

Recently in Pakistan, Rimsha Masih a fourteen-year old, mentally-challenged Christian girl, was released from jail on charges of blasphemy. She was found with some burnt pages of the Quran, for which she could receive the death penalty. The case is confusing: she confessed and then recanted; she may have simply found the already burnt pages, perhaps the burnt pages were planted by a local imam, etc. Rimsha gives a face, intentional or not, to religiously-motivated laws that restrict religious freedoms. Laws against the burning of the Quran are sometimes little more than ways to persecute Christians in Muslim-majority countries.

Christians in the U.S., reflecting on Rimsha's case, should consider how the privilege of being in the majority might infringe upon the freedoms of the minority. Sadly, the stats show that Christians are not likely to be so self-reflective.