John McCain

Gov. Sarah Palin, Antichrist

The punch line rocketed around the World Wide Web, inspiring smiles in pews friendly to Sen. Barack Obama.

The Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners saw a campaign button based on this one liner and, on the "Interfaith Voices" public radio show, said it was a fine response to Gov. Sarah Palin's jab at the work of "community organizers."

Donna Brazile -- who ran Al Gore's 2000 White House campaign -- saw the same gag and, on CNN, quickly linked it to the Bible's message that "to whom much is given, much is required."

But this cyberspace quip finally made the crucial jump to YouTube when U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen took to the House floor to remind conservatives "Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus. ... Pontius Pilate was a governor."

Cohen later emphasized that, "I didn?t and I wouldn't compare anyone to Jesus. ... What I pointed out was that Jesus was a force of change." But the apology came too late to douse the fiery rhetoric raging on talk radio and weblogs.

In particular, the soundbite used by Cohen and others captured the rising tide of religious tensions in this White House race. This conflict has been heightened by the powerful role played by religious liberals in Obama's groundbreaking outreach efforts in a wide variety of sanctuaries.

Obama is, after all, an articulate, proud member of the denomination -- the United Church of Christ -- that has in recent decades boldly pushed mainline Protestant to the doctrinal left on issues such as gay rights, abortion and the tolerance of other world religions. His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, is an outspoken American Catholic whose progressive views have often placed him in dangerous territory between his political party and the Vatican.

Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, used to be an Episcopalian married to a beer-empire heiress, the very model of a mainline Protestant gentleman from the 1950s. Then he started visiting Southern Baptist pews while mending fences on the religious right. Finally, McCain shuffled the 2008 deck by naming Palin -- an enthusiastic evangelical mother of five children -- as his running mate.

This move rocked the pews on both sides of the sanctuary aisle, but Palin's ascension has caused an unusual degree of shock, anger, dismay and distain on the secular and religious left.

The political weblog Instapundit summed up the mood on the cultural left with this headline: "She's the freakin' Antichrist, I tell you!"

For author Deepak Chopra, a superstar in the spirituality marketplace, Palin is, quite literally, the anti-Obama. She is a living symbol of all that is wrong with small-town, parochial, ignorant, reactionary Middle America, especially with her "family values" code language that opposes expanding doctrines of civil rights.

"She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses," he argued, at The Huffington Post. "In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of 'the other.' "

Obama, however, is "calling for us to reach for our higher selves," said Chopra.

The ultimate irony is the GOP's assumption that Palin will appeal to women just because "she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies," argued religious historian Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

"Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman," she wrote, in an "On Faith" essay for the Washington Post. "She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working class women."

But can anyone, in the current political atmosphere, top the Palin as Pontius Pilate smack down? University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs, offered his best shot.

When it comes to faith and politics, he said, the values of McCain's "handpicked running mate, Sarah Palin, more resemble those of Muslim fundamentalists than they do those of the Founding Fathers. On censorship, the teaching of creationism in schools, reproductive rights, attributing government policy to God's will and climate change, Palin agrees with Hamas and Saudi Arabia rather than supporting tolerance and democratic precepts.

"What is the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick."

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."