I am currently in Finland, where scholars at Turku and Helsinki asked me to address, among other topics, the role of religion in the American presidential campaign. Having done very different variations on that theme in the United States before I left, let me pass on to you something of what I will have delivered in Finland by the time this commentary is published. Trying to explain why religion is any part of politics in the United States, which was constitutionally "born secular" (in European eyes and terms), why religion is the hot topic in a year when the economic agenda should top all others, and why religion in this "one nation 'under God' indivisible" becomes the most divisive element in a campaign, is a challenge to the explainer and will only fall short in the ears of the explainees. But…
I called the theme "Religion and the Presidential Campaign: We Can't Live Without It/We Can't Live With It." "It" has been an irritant in the campaigns of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and especially the current incumbent, though it also led to some chafing in every campaign which I observed and sometimes covered since 1948. Why is the temperature hottest, or worst, this year? Among many reasons has been the step-up in 24/7 TV and radio coverage and the explosion in the blogosphere, which attracts the noisiest firebrands. All must compete to hold audiences and readership for tomorrow, so they have to blow up differences today. Race, incidentally, also is huge, but usually under-toned; religion gets treated more openly.
Why can't "we" live without religion in the campaign? Here thoughtful observers and partisans on all sides during the primary and on both sides since, knowing their history and the cultural climate, acknowledge that millions do make up their minds about politics on the basis of religious teaching, affiliation, and habit. Religion can't be legally suppressed, and is psychologically repressed only among the few. Good things have sometimes happened when religion showed up in politics and the religious worked for peace, justice, mercy, welfare, and more. Bad things also often happen, as we observe this year.
Why can't "we" live with religion in this campaign? Two main reasons: First, the religious can be exploited or can exploit religious teachings, allegiances, fears and promises; second, religion gets exhibited in ways that are criticized in the texts of Judaism, Christianity, and most other faiths. Candidates and their backers lunge at or are lured to use the opportunities to make a display of their piety and virtue in an "I'm better than you are, and God blesses me and mine" mode. Exploited and exhibited religion is bad for politics, a zone where give-and-take should be built into the process, but is not in evidence among absolutists and the obsessed during the campaigns.
Are the exploitation and exhibiting of religion also bad for religion? I like to hedge bets when commenting on politics, with all its built-in ambiguity. But here I am unambiguous: it's bad. Bad for the name of religion itself, for religious institutions, for a fair reading of sacred texts, for sundered religious communities, for swaggering religious communities which are too sure of themselves, for the pursuit of virtue, for extending the reach of religion too far. Devote one's years to the public dimensions of religious life and to the religious dimensions of public life, as my kind and I try to do, and one can only be saddened to see the distortions and selling-outs that blight the seasons. The broadly-defined religious forces and texts teach waiting and hope. Soon the waiting will be over. One hopes consciences, and not only emotions, will be stirred again.