03/23/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

Religion and Faith-Full Politics

With each passing day, religious topics are becoming increasingly significant in the presidential campaign discourse. The GOP presidential candidates are all too happy to discuss their faith, extolling their open and proud devotion to versions of Christianity. Such devotion, they suggest, makes them particularly qualified to become president. By the same token, this narrative suggests indirectly that President Obama has a different more "exotic" faith, which leads millions of people to believe -- quite erroneously -- that he is foreign or even a Muslim who is a pawn of a theocratic Islamic conspiracy.

Given their penchant for faith-full political declarations, the GOP presidential hopefuls, especially Pennsylvania's favorite son, Rick Santorum, have declared war on pornography and have called for an end to Planned Parenthood. They have voiced their support for measures that would restrict contraception and promote unnecessary medical procedures and cumbersome bureaucratic restrictions that would make it exceedingly difficult to obtain an abortion, which they tend to see as immoral, if not downright evil.

Although the articulation of these religious themes may seem invasive and disturbing to many Americans, their presence in the current political campaign is not that surprising. Religion, after all, has always played a central role social life -- in America, but also in Europe and other parts of the world. Following the insights of religious studies scholars we know that religion gives us our bearing in the world. It defines the structure of the universe and provides a myth of creation. It sets a code of ethics and offers a set of standards for moral behavior. It creates a matrix of moods and motivates us to act. It defines spaces of good and evil, and helps us to deal with the absurdity of human pain and suffering. Is it any wonder that people devote so much energy to religious practices?

The central presence of religion in public life makes it a prime ingredient in the play of politics. From a cross-cultural anthropological and historical perspective, it is clear that people in positions of power have long used religion as a political tool. In the 19th century it was used as a rationale for British and French colonial expansion -- especially in Africa. Evoking themes of cultural renaissance and "the white man's burden," France and Great Britain -- and Portugal, Belgium and Germany to a lesser degree -- extended colonial rule over much of the African continent. It is equally clear that the notion of a "civilizing mission" was a smokescreen to obscure the wholesale economic exploitation of lands rich in the primary materials central to industrial expansion. It was more politic to promote a "civilizing mission" rather than to expose the brute imperial exploitation of natural resources that helped to expand the economic and military power of Great Britain and France.

Following this well-worn path, contemporary American politicians seem to be using religion to divert our attention from fundamental and disturbing economic trends. In faith-full politics, we are told that the world can be categorized in hermetically sealed categories of black and white, good and evil, and moral and immoral. These days the GOP presidential hopefuls like to link sacred morality and sacrosanct free markets. Indeed, in contemporary faith-full politics the god-like status of the market -- and corporations -- seems to have overshadowed the age-old religious obligation of caring for the old, the sick and the poor.

Given my cross-cultural perspective, tempered by a rich historical and anthropological record, I am skeptical about how faith is used in the public sphere for political purposes. My strong suspicion is that the real power brokers, people like the Koch Brothers, among many other wealthy seekers of political influence, are funding candidates and Super PACS that promote faith-full messages that divert our attention away from perhaps the most profound transfer of wealth in American history.

The narrative of wealth transfer, which has been championed by the Occupy Wall Street Movement, has introduced the issue of social inequality into American political discourse. Talk of skewed income distribution and lack of fairness threatens the power brokers, who want us to forget about the excesses of social and economic inequality. If they have their way, and you cannot underestimate the power of money to influence the electorate, the middle class will soon fade into obscurity and we will regress into a society marked by the hopelessness of rigid social class division.

Faith-full politics today reinforces faith-less social policies that would bring irreparable social harm to the old, the sick and the poor. Once again religion is being used to obscure economic exploitation.

God help us if faith-full politicians create faith-less social policies -- all to increase social and economic disparity.