Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat facing a tough reelection campaign, launched a new political ad this month, and both the ad and the responses to it have highlighted the challenges of mixing religion and politics in ways that respect religious freedom, pluralism, and the spirit of the Constitution.
In Pryor's new ad, he doesn't talk about political issues or his opponent; he just talks about the Bible.
"I'm not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in His word. The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does. And neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my north star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas. I'm Mark Pryor, and I approve this message because this is who I am and what I believe."
The centrality of faith in Pryor's life is well-known. But the ad was slammed by Brad Dayspring at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who mockingly suggested the ad contradicted comments Pryor had made last year: "The Bible is really not a rule book for political issues. Everybody can see it differently." But I don't see the contradiction. In both, Pryor seems to be acknowledging that even people who look to the Bible for guidance can disagree on particular policy positions. Dayspring's attack drew a surprising rebuke from Pryor's Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, who called the NRSC response "bizarre and offensive."
The ad has drawn a mixed response from progressive commentators. Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly praises Pryor for "basically saying the Bible teaches some humility and reserves wisdom and final judgment to God Almighty, not to his self-appointed representatives on earth." But Paul Waldman at the American Prospect takes issue with Pryor's "I'm not ashamed" line, suggesting it is a dog-whistle for those who believe the religious right's charge that Christianity is under attack in America.
Waldman notes, however, that the ad could have been a lot worse, reminding us of this notorious Rick Perry ad from 2012, which starts with very similar "I'm not ashamed" language but then gets "much more vulgar."
A more recent example of the "a lot worse" school of religion and politics came from Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who is currently running for the Senate. In a six-minute speech from the floor of the House of Representatives in September, he mixed personal religious testimony with Christian-nation claims that the government should be run according to his interpretation of the Bible.
Broun's remarks start with a core Christian Reconstructionist principle: that God ordained family, church and government and gave each a specific area of authority. But, he says, because of "this mistaken idea that we're supposed to have a separation of church and state, the family and the church have abdicated a lot of its duties over to government." (Reconstructionists believe that God did not authorize government to be involved, for example, in education or the reduction of poverty; that role is meant for family and church.)
Broun calls the Bible "the basis of our nation," and says the fact that we aren't running society accordingly will mean the death of our Republic. The founding fathers, he says, were "Bible-believing Christians" who believed that "every aspect of life should follow the dictates of God's inerrant word. That's what I believe in. That's what we should all believe in."
This message is not new for Broun. Last year Kilgore wrote about a Broun speech in which he said that evolutionary science is "from the pit of hell" and that the Bible is a "manufacturer's handbook" that "teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society," as well as our lives as individuals. "That's the reason as your Congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C."
There are important distinctions between Pryor's ad and Broun's speeches. It is helpful to look at them through the prism of People For the American Way Foundation's "12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics." These "rules of the road" are meant to generate a broader conversation about how we can create and sustain a civic space that reflects the principles of the Constitution and the values of respectful civic discourse, one that welcomes the participation of people of all faiths and people of none. Consider this passage from the "12 Rules":
Public officials are free to talk about their faith, the role it plays in their lives, and how it influences their approach to issues, but must not use the power of their office to proselytize or impose particular religious beliefs or practices on others.
Pryor's ad seems to be intended to keep to the appropriate side of this rule, where Broun clearly violates the rule by proselytizing from the floor of the House.
In addition, Broun, like David Barton and other religious right leaders, claims that the right-wing position on every political issue finds some grounding or justification in the Bible, which should be the final word on every policy matter. Broun's insistence that every aspect of law and society should fit his interpretation of the Bible also violates another rule, "It is appropriate to discuss the moral and religious dimensions of policy issues, but religious doctrine alone is not an acceptable basis for public policy." In contrast, Pryor's ad explicitly says that he doesn't claim to have all the answers, even though he uses the Bible as his moral compass.
A religious right critic of Pryor's ad broke another of PFAW Foundation's rules: "Religion should not be used as a political club." As blogger Jeremy Hooper noted, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition was "outraged" by Pryor's ad. She said his claim to be guided by the Bible "the furthest thing from the truth" because he had voted for the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which protects people from being discriminated at work based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lafferty is of course free to believe that fairness is not a biblical value; but she shouldn't denigrate the sincerity of Pryor's faith because he disagrees.
Still, Pryor's ad is a cautionary tale about the fact that, as he himself has said, the intersection of faith and politics can be difficult to navigate. It can come across as saying, "vote for me because I'm a Christian," a message that fails to respect America's constitutional ideals and growing religious pluralism. And it could be seen as uncomfortably close to the message of Mike Huckabee's 2008 primary campaign against Mitt Romney in Iowa, which essentially boiled down to, "vote for me because I'm the right kind of Christian." Candidates or campaigns that suggest only Christians, or certain kinds of Christians, are worthy of public office violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution's prohibition on a religious test for public office.
With Christian-nation advocates like David Lane organizing all over the country for the 2014 and 2016 elections, there's little doubt that the months ahead will bring some downright toxic mixing of religion and politics.