Candidates and Their God

I find myself intrigued by Peggy Noonan’s column today, at least more than usual.

I was talking with an old friend, a longtime Democrat, and she asked if I knew what religion a certain presidential candidate was. I replied that I didn’t know and hoped I’d never find out. We started to laugh, and she nodded. 

I didn’t mean it and yet I meant it, for we have come to an odd pass regarding candidates and their faith. It’s not as if faith is unimportant, it’s always important. But we are asking our political figures–mere flawed politicians–to put forward and talk about their faith to a degree that has become odd. We push them against the wall and do a kind of theological frisk on them. We didn’t use to.

Theological frisk. Yeah, good image.

Noonan goes on to write about how denominational affiliations didn’t seem to matter as much in the olden days.

In 1968 we were, as now, a religious country. But when we walked to the polls, we thought we were about to hire a president, not a Bible study teacher.

She proceeds to set the faith/practice relation straight.

…faith is also personal. You can be touched by a candidate’s faith, or interested in his apparent lack of it. It’s never wholly unimportant, but you should never see a politician as a leader of faith, and we should not ask a man who made his rise in the grubby world of politics to act as if he is an exemplar of his faith, or an explainer or defender of it.

And here’s where it gets interesting, and not just because of her (inadvertent?) use of the (generic?) masculine for political candidates, although that is interesting of her in this particular electoral cycle. Her point that the real world of politics is not a very good petri dish for the beatitudes to grow, so to speak, is well taken.

Yet what interests me most are the two big holes in her historical capsules. She writes

It is true that everyone knew Jimmy Carter was an evangelical Christian, but that was famous because they were a new and rising force in American politics in 1976, and after Watergate his immersion in faith seemed refreshing.


…George W. Bush, became president a few years after an intense Christian conversion that was by all accounts transforming. In the way of many recent converts, in the great whoosh of feeling they often experience, his presidency came to take much of its shape from a certain emotionalism. Certainly there were around him a number of transported spirits, and pious connivers.

About Carter — I don’t think it’s important how refreshing Jimmy Carter’s self-promotion as a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher was for some of us. What seems truly important is that Carter roused a sleeping giant that had slumbered since the Scopes Trial in 1925. We live with the consequences to this day. Was it a cynical precedent for a candidate to leverage his own sincere and humble faith as an antidote for the stains of the Nixon Administration? And was the Christian Coalition, et. al., blowback or inevitable once one actually does run for president and Bible study teacher, as Carter did?

About Bush II —  “… there were around him a number of transported spirits, and pious connivers” is to understatement, as lepton is to “smaller than a breadbox,” don’t you think? Peggy, David Kuo wrote this book, and you should be aware of it.

In fact George W. Bush is the reason for all the theological frisking, and under the circumstances, what else should we expect?

We have a president who publicly stated that God told him to invade Iraq. After all the carnage, and after all the destruction upon destruction to Iraq and to America’s formerly good name, this president stubbornly acts as if a divine deus ex machina will yet make everything right.

I can understand a wee bit of interest in whether the next president of the United States might operate under god-maddened delusions. Even though it shouldn’t matter, I’m afraid that this time it does.

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One response to “Candidates and Their God

  1. Well written, thoughtful reflection. Faith is never just personal. What a person believes influences how s/he behaves. How a politician views (or chooses not to view) God will impact how s/he governs. From Washington on, faith in God has been of vital importance. I know in 1960 Kennedy had to address his Catholicism. And, I know Nixon somehow managed to manipulate even the devout Billy Graham with his claim to Quaker values. Faith has always been, and always will be, a political issue.

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