Monday, December 24, 2007

2008 & The Problem of Religious Unity

For most Americans, the 2008 elections have erupted into a national debate about the role of religion in American politics. However, for most members of the Republican party, the debate has narrowed down to an ugly debate over whether or not the candidate belongs to the "right" religion and whether or not membership to a specific religion qualifies a candidate to be a leader for America.

There is nothing wrong with a national debate on religion since it has been going on since the founding of this nation. However, the debate as always been about the general role of religion and not about a specific denomination. Our Founding Fathers came from various different religious backgrounds and when they were in the process of creating this nation, they specifically wanted religion to play a role in public life but they also wanted to prevent America from endorsing a specific denomination or sect. The Founding Fathers were purposely trying to avoid the mistake that Old Europe had made and that was one religion had the endorsement of the Government at the exclusion of all other religions. In fact, England herself has suffered a wave of political instability as one King or Queen was placed on or overthrown from the royal throne simply because one King or Queen was of a particular religion.

Thus, the Founding Fathers understood the problem that faces a country and its religiously pluralistic society. It is a problem of religious unity. Old Europe's solution was to force unity through governmental endorsement of a particular religion. The Founding Father believe that the answer lies in the paradox of allowing unifying a religiously diverse country by forbidding the government of endorsing a particular religion.

Fast forward from 1776 to 2008 and we find ourselves squabbling over whether or not a Evangelical Christian or a Latter Day Saint is the "right" religion for a GOP candidate to be. But this isn't the only harmful consequence of the 2008 elections and its focus on religion. The Internet and daily conversations are filled with people contending with one another about the merits or validity of a particular religion and its doctrines. Furthermore, the old and sad debate of whether or not its a particular religion is a "cult" or an authentic religion has become a part of our national discourse.

John F. Kennedy in address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960's campaign warned that if the American voter got too focused on religion and refuse to vote for a candidates based on his or her faith, it might be that the voter's own faith might be the subject of unfair scrutiny by the general public in the next election cycle:

"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist...Today I may be the victim--but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."
The problem of religious unity that JFK identifies is that the public (and not the government) will endorse a particular faith based upon their support for a particular candidate and the religion he belongs to. This is a problem that the Founding Father sought to avoid when they inserted into the Constitution, a clause forbidding the application of a religious test to any candidate.

Fast forward from 1776 and passing through 1960 to 2008, Mike Huckabee's campaign has brought us into this unfortunate moment in history by making a candidate's religion an issue. While Mike Huckabee hypocritically refuses to make his own faith and the sermons he delivered a target of intense scrutiny. In fact, Mr. Huckabee gets irritated with the press when it focuses on his faith and its particular doctrines and yet he has made the faith of Mitt Romney's faith an issue. He plays passive-aggressive in feigning ignorance in questioning (or attacking) Mitt Romney's religion and then later apologizing for his remarks even though there is plenty of evidence that he is very knowledgeable about LDS doctrines when he was the Keynote Speaker at the 1998 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Salt Lake City and that Janet L. Folger gives Mr. Huckabee advice on "Faith and Values" issues.

But Mike Huckabee isn't just making an Mitt Romney's faith an issue of his campaign, he's making religion a central issue of his campaign. This is evident as he releases a Christmas campaign commercial with a well lighted cross disguised as a bookshelf or his willingness to speak at Churches across the nation but snubbing request to speak to the general public or offending the Catholics by visiting Pastor John Hagee, a man who some Catholics feel spreads an anti-Catholic message to his followers.

Huckabee's strategy of using religion to get himself in to the White House is dangerous for America and the political process. It leaves us divided as we are separated into religious groups. It gets us debating over the issue of "authenticity" of a particular religion. Feelings are hurt when religious groups such as Mormons and Catholics are snubbed by Mike Huckabee's campaign. But it also hurts the group that Mike Huckabee is trying to appeal: the evangelical vote since the secular public grows more and more weary of religion in the public sphere and sees religion as being exclusive rather than an inclusive institution. Not only will voters reject religion but they will reject its Christian message too.

In short, Mike Huckabee's harmful plan of using religion and appealing to a specific group of Christians to win the White House is hurting America because its not bringing us together but dividing us.

JFK wisely warned us of this problem us about because making religion an issue a central issue of the election because it will continue to divide us until "the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."

In contrast, Mitt Romney understands the important of keeping the fabric of our harmonious society together. In his speech at the George Bush Presidential Library, he acknowledges that despite the diversity of religion in America, "we share a common creed of moral convictions" and that when a candidate becomes president, "he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths." Mitt Romney's campaign is inclusive, not exclusive like Mike Huckabee's. He tells the American voter that his campaign is inclusive because:

"Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."
Given the troubled times that we live in, we need a leader who can represent a religious, ethnic, social and politically pluralistic nation and bring us together. Mike Huckabee, by his words and actions, cannot bring us together. Mitt Romney can.

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