Barach Obama

Faith & politics? Nothing new

When it comes to religion and politics, it's hard to talk about the contests without naming the players and their teams.

Consider Hillary Rodham Clinton, who insists that her political convictions are rooted in her United Methodist faith. Then there is Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremy Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ. Enough said.

What about John "Faith of My Fathers" McCain, an Episcopalian who worships with the Southern Baptists? Soon he will pick a running mate. Do you prefer Mitt Romney, who served as a Mormon bishop, or Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister?

But to see the big faith-and-politics picture, it helps not to focus on the details. That's why the famous church historian Martin Marty, speaking early in this year's topsy-turvy primary season, elected to do the near impossible -- deliver a 45-minute lecture on this hot-button topic without mentioning the name of a single candidate.

"Won't that be a relief?", asked Marty, speaking at Palm Beach Atlantic University in South Florida.

The alternative is to cause yet another shouting match in the political pews. Tune in the typical talk-television politico, he said, and "as soon as there's a label as to whether she or he is representing a candidate or party or whatever, you know what they are going to say and it ends there."

Right up front, Marty admitted that he has been a doorbell-ringing political activist since 1949 and he still calls Harry Truman "my president." Also, the intersection of religion and public life has been a major theme in many of his 50-plus books and the weekly columns he has published for 50 years in the Christian Century, a mainline Protestant journal.

Truth is, he said, it's impossible to study American history without noting the role religion has played in politics and culture. Since day one, America has offered a powerful blend of evangelical revivalism and enlightenment rationalism and believers on both sides of the aisle have followed their heads as well as their hearts.

This faith factor isn't fading, as America life becomes more pluralistic and complex. Once, America was a Protestant, Catholic and Jewish nation. Now, it is a "Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim nation -- and much more," said Marty.

But one thing America certainly isn't is "secular" and there is no evidence whatsoever that the power of religion is fading in the world as a whole. Marty said this reality is hard for many scholars and journalists to accept, especially those influenced by studies in the 1960s that guaranteed a 21st Century world that would be "secular, sensate, epicurean, hedonistic, contractual, pragmatic, programmatic and empirical."

"That model didn't work for most people" around the world, he said, and it "doesn't work for any of us" in America.

These days, religious believers on both sides of the aisle continue to be shaken by aftershocks from the school prayer decision in 1963 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. The Iranian crisis in 1979 cracked the shell of America's sense of safety and security, which later was shattered by the hellish reality of Sept. 11, 2001.

Marty said it's hard to discuss national "security," without talking about religion. That's also true when it comes to debating an issue that "starts on page one of the Bible," which is caring for creation and the environment.

Then there are the issues linked to what he called the "care of the other," including health, education, welfare and immigration. Religious believers also are worried about the state of American culture, yet it's hard for them to find common answers to questions such as, "What is beautiful? What is true? What is good? What is noble? What is ugly?" Then there are all those hot-button issues linked to sexuality, marriage and family life.

All of this keeps seeping into American politics.

The bottom line, said Marty, is that it's good for religious activists to work in politics, but very bad for them to confuse religion and politics.

Believers must, he stressed, remember that the "God who sits in the heavens shall laugh at our pretensions, our parties, our causes, but the same God holds us responsible and honors our aspirations." And, as for the flash point where politics and religion meet, "we can't live with it, we can't live without it. ... You aren't going to get anywhere without dealing, some way, justly with the religious involvement of the people."

Soaring candidates in '08

If Mike Huckabee has said it once, he has said it a thousand times during his bid to reach the White House.

"I have a great respect for Barack Obama," noted Huckabee, during a "Tonight Show" visit. "I think he's a person who is trying to do in many ways what I hope I'm trying to do and that is to say, 'Let's quit what I call horizontal politics.'

"Everything in this country is not left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. I think the country is looking for somebody who is vertical, who is thinking, 'Let's take America up and not down.' "

This is how the Southern Baptist pastor tweaked his "vertical" credo on "Meet the Press," facing journalist Tim Russert: "There has been a huge cultural shift in this country, Tim. And I think that's why many Americans are seeking leadership that has a positive and optimistic spirit. ... I think the American people are hungry for vertical politics, where we have leaders who lift us up rather than those who tear us down."

The former Arkansas governor has used the word "vertical" so many times that enquiring politicos want to know: What's "up" with this guy? Some worry that, as critic Josh Marshall put it, Huckabee is sending a "clever dog whistle call out to Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that his politics are God?s politics."

This kind of uplifting, vaguely spiritual language may make some people uncomfortable, but there is nothing unusual about it, according to former White House insider Michael Gerson, the evangelical scribe who helped craft the early speeches of President George W. Bush.

"Making use of these kinds of non-sectarian religious references is, itself, the great tradition of American political speechmaking," said Gerson, who is now a Washington Post opinion columnist. "As a speechwriter, when I hear this kind of language it tells me that someone is trying to describe a politics of idealism and aspiration. It's a kind of bringing-America-together language and there is certainly nothing new about political leaders trying to do that."

In fact, there is another candidate in the race who has been using large doses of religious imagery. As Huckabee has noted, Sen. Barack Obama has created some non-horizontal language of his own during his quest to find a truly "post-partisan" politics.

"We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House," said Obama, after his primary victory in South Carolina. "But we know that real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose -- a higher purpose. ? This election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again."

Clearly, Gerson noted, Obama feels comfortable talking about his Christian faith as he discusses his own political goals and beliefs.

It's hard to fake this. Obama feels comfortable enough to use biblical images in a wide variety of settings, whether he is making a high-profile speech or chatting with voters after Sunday services.

"I don't believe, in his case, that this is someone who is unfamiliar with religious language, but trying to adapt it all of a sudden for political reasons," said Gerson.

This is also true for Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist who uses his deep knowledge of Bible Belt language as a way to connect with conservative believers -- especially African-Americans -- as well as with religious and political progressives. And Hillary Clinton is very comfortable talking about her United Methodist faith, noted Gerson. However, her "sincere liberal mainline Protestant beliefs" may not connect with as many people who worship in other pews.

Meanwhile, Obama and Huckabee will continue trying to find faith-based words that unite, rather than divide.

When it comes to language, "they are the soaring candidates," said Gerson. "They are trying to claim the higher ground that says they are above the vicious partisanship of the whole Clinton-Bush era."

They are not the first to blaze this trail. As an articulate idealist once put it: "I suggest to you there is no left or right, only an up or down."

That was Ronald Reagan, in the 1964 speech that launched him into national politics. He went on to win his share of votes in church pews.