Has the Church truly become the Republican party at prayer, or are there signs that the nearly forty-year-old love affair between the GOP and Christian fundamentalists is finally showing cracks? At first glance, any suggestion that there might be any stagnation in this long-heralded marriage of faith and politics would be met with swift dismissal and cries of heresy. A closer look, though, presents some interesting stretch points.
There’s no secret to the fact that the evangelical and fundamentalist community has long given itself to the wiles of the Republican party. As a match made in political heaven, the GOP quickly embraced the evangelical anti-whatever-is-the-demon-of-the-day platform that has culminated in what has become the party of “NO.”
But let’s be fair. Politics and religion are inseparable. Thankfully, the first amendment still maintains that the government will not endorse or promote a religious ideal, but that doesn’t stop candidates from being as religious or they want. Sometimes, though, a candidate’s religion can get them into a bit of hot water with voters.
Mitt Romney knows this all too well, with his Mormon religion front and center in the minds of evangelicals. Most evangelical denominations consider the Church of Latter Day Saints to be a cult. The religion controversy over a presidential candidate certainly isn’t new. Romney had to deal with it. When Joe Lieberman ran as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, his Jewish faith had tongues wagging.
But we can go back another 40 years to yet another hotly contested race to see the religion question pop up. Such was part of the political discussion in the 1960 election where John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was met with a significant amount of concern as to whether or not the Pope would decide the direction of American politics. It was a notion that did not sit well with evangelical and fundamentalist voters of the day.
It was an issue of such concern, that the then-candidate addressed it directly when he was invited to speak before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He didn’t dance around the topic of his own religion, and went right for the gusto. Kennedy’s message didn’t just address whether he gets his marching orders from the Pope — he delivered a prophetic message that can only be described as prophetic:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
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. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. 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.
It’s as if Kennedy knew exactly what politics would be like in 2012, where an astonishing number of Americans not only believe that President Obama is a Muslim (strange how he almost goes out of his way to violate every point of Sharia. Hell, he even owns a dog). Today, fundamentalists have an extraordinary amount of power and political influence, even to the point where they act as “king makers.”
Interestingly, a candidate’s Catholic faith isn’t an issue these days. While most fundamentalists firmly believe that Catholics are damned, they have a lot of love for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — the latter becoming their latest poster boy for right wing politics.
Santorum has enjoyed a bit of a surge in support recently, especially since he was given a massive dose of support from a group of more than 100 influential Christian conservatives, including that of Tony Perkins, president of the SPLC-certified hate group, the Family Research Council, among others.
Despite this swell of support for the former Senator from Pennsylvania who lost his last election by an embarrassing 18 points, the days of evangelical leaders having major influence in the minds of voters may be dwindling. The New York Times points out:
Evangelicals tend to be better informed and more independent that they were a generation ago, when the endorsement from a leader like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson held huge sway, said Rev. Paul Jimenez, pastor of Taylors First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C.
“People will take note of what the leaders say, but the days are gone when you could stand up and say this is our guy,” said Mr. Jimenez, who previously worked in Washington for the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. “Evangelicals have so many voices now.”
This particular gathering was intended to give Santorum the status of being the ultimate “not-Romney,” whom they consider to be too moderate. In other words, Romney isn’t anti-gay, anti-abortion, or anti-science enough for them. Perhaps the time has come to make the bold decision — collectively — to stop judging our politics by our religion, and stop judging our religion by our politics. We’ll never separate politics from religion, but for God’s sake, let’s stop using our faith as a reason to be so abusive to each other. But hey, it’s not my idea — it was Kennedy’s:
Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
Clearly, the idea of brotherhood among American politics is as much of a pipe dream as anything can be. This year’s election has the potential of being one of the most divisive in the last 100 years, or it can be more unifying. I have no illusions that we’ll be singing kum-bay-ya anytime soon, but it appears that the GOP, at the very least, is learning that their best option is a candidate who’s not thumping a Bible every time they stump.
As such, analysts are saying that the nominee is Romney’s to lose at this point. With Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul all polling in the teens compared to Romney’s 35-plus numbers, it would take some serious divine intervention for either Santorum or Gingrich to pull a nomination out of their hat.
Religious-right voters might have hoped that their push to support Santorum would be that divine intervention. Evidently, their hope was to drive a ground swell of voters to commit to cast their vote his way. After all, the evangelical base is one of the most powerful voting blocks in the country. Along with their support comes their hopes to see one of their own in the White House.
Alas, this week’s Gallup poll shows he dropped by four points.