Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

faith time

By Diogenes ( articles ) | May 20, 2008

The most amusing aspect of the presidential campaign season is the exquisitely awkward shamelessness with which the candidates cynically fake a connection with the ordinary citizen. For Republicans, this takes the form of pretending to a sympathetic familiarity with pop culture; for Democrats, the ruse is to present themselves as believing Christians. In both parties, of course, there are voters who wish to be deceived badly enough to ignore the charlatanism; the rest of us find it merely embarrassing: in Mark Steyn's words, it's like watching your parents do the Macarena at a party.

In Kentucky, Barack Obama has been obliged to combine his Macarena with a minuet, as he attempts to position himself as a God-fearing Protestant gentleman in the NARAL-Calvinist tradition. His notorious faith flier draws our attention to his newly-installed religious roots, which were welded onto his public image by campaign staffers once the Northeast primaries were over.

I got a kick out of the layout of the flier, especially the main photo, which significantly shows Obama not in the pews but in the pulpit. This is precisely where he ought to be shown.

Remember that the liberal-conservative divide shapes itself not only around the faith vs. secularism fault line, but it involves a further disagreement about the nature of religion. Not only is church attendance a symptom of conservative rather than liberal sympathies (in general), but the relation of preacher to politician is reversed in the different camps. For conservatives, it is the minister who is the mouthpiece of authoritative truths and the politician who, to the extent that he listens at all, is the preacher's pupil. For liberals, it's the politicians (the enlightened politicians) who are about the really important business and who have the answers that really matter. True religion, in their view, is a servant of progress in this world, not its master, and a good preacher is one who has let himself be taught by the authentically prophetic politicians. For this reason, when we hear progressive priests and bishops burbling in praise of Obama or Clinton, the biblical or moral platitudes they offer in support are dragged in tardily and usually ineptly: entranced as they are by power in the person of the candidate who can effect the real-world changes they desire, their own religion is largely beside the point -- except, perhaps, as the compendium of an antique poetry of social resentment. Regardless of the positions they occupy in the church building, it's the preacher who sits at the feet of the pol.

Take it one level further. Liberal Christians believe religion itself to be a product of worldly politics; e.g., they invariably explain the composition of the Bible and the development of Church authority as a series of propaganda ploys by which partisan claims were packaged as "divine revelation" in order to reinforce the policy and position of some privileged caste. There are no immutable truths to communicate. To treat the Bible seriously as God's word, or to suggest that we were "under judgment" of the Gospel, would be laughed away as childishly naive.

As I argued earlier, Republicans who try to impute Rev. Wright's views to Obama on the grounds that Wright was Obama's pastor for twenty years are fitting the cartridge into the wrong end of the barrel. It's unlikely that Obama or Clinton have showed up in church a dozen times in the past couple decades when there wasn't a camera crew present, but even if they did, neither would go there to be instructed. They have sermons of their own to give. The photo in the flier has it right.

So what happens in the rare circumstance in which a liberal Dem finds himself trapped in a pew with an imperfectly passive Christian in the pulpit? Bad business all around. Four years ago, back when General Wesley Clark was a presidential candidate, his spiritual hunger led him to an evangelical church in South Carolina to feed on the Gospel. As the Weekly Standard reported, the homilist of the hour forgot who was in control of the script:

[The guest preacher was] Dr. Sheila B. Koger, formidable pastor of Columbia's Bethlehem Baptist Church, who favors white satin robes, complete with surplice, and emphatic earrings. With Wes Clark sitting in the second row among a line of elected officials, Dr. Koger began her sermon with a conventional tribute to King, then took an unexpected turn.

"Everyone says these days, 'Give me rights,'" Dr. Koger said. "'Give the gay people rights,' they say." Dr. Koger's voice rose: "But the Lord God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. If you're a man, then be a man, not a woman!" Half of the congregation was on its feet before too long, shouting approval. "Now if you're not sure which you are, you can just ask yourself a simple question: 'Do I have a womb?' If you ain't got a womb, then you're a man. And you better act like one."

At the start of Dr. Koger's sermon Clark set his face in the rictal smile that is traditional for white politicians who find themselves in black churches. But as she took her detour into gay marriage the candidate turned to a man next to him and appeared to make small talk -- here I am, just another four-star general trying to mind my own business. ...

Small wonder progressives keep clear of the religion thing as much as possible. You just never know when the fanatics from the Christian right will blindside you by saying today exactly what they said yesterday. And the day before.

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