The Iowa Presidential debate last weekend highlighted the predictable, including experience (Obama has too little, Clinton has too much) and the other usual issue suspects. The flow was interrupted, albeit briefly, when moderator George Stephanopoulos read an email question from Seth Ford of South Jordan, Utah. "My question,” Jordan wrote, “is to understand each candidates' view of a personal God. Do they believe that, through the power of prayer, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened? What followed were a series of the expected professions of deep faith and thankfully a dismissal of prayer’s power to avert tragedy by the two candidates who should know about such things, John Edwards and Joe Biden.
You may wonder why the ABC producers plucked that email out of probably hundreds, but perhaps you shouldn’t. After all, it was in Iowa eight years ago that Republican aspirants were asked, “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?” It was then that candidate George W. Bush gave his now famous and revealing answer, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” While Bush refused to define the “why”, all but one of his opponents who included the professed theocrat Alan Keyes and avowed religious zealot Gary Bauer eagerly testified to their faith and religiosity. The Iowa debate that year was prescient because the Administration that followed is perhaps the most overtly religious in the history of the Republic. Prayer, religious study groups and faith-based initiatives (costing taxpayers many millions) have insinuated themselves into virtually every government department. An astounding 150 graduates of Pat Robertson’s Regent University’s low rated (and evangelically oriented) law school have been put on the public payroll including at the DOJ, most notably Monica Goodling.
Perhaps the influence of the Religious Right is not quite what it was in Bush’s good old days, but make no mistake religion continues to be a major factor. Just as social conservatives consider opposition to Choice a litmus test for the High Court, Americans generally see a professed belief in God as an essential credential for high office, especially the Presidency. Prayer apparently is part of that, this despite the fact that a substantial majority (at least 60% according to polls) of us do not attend worship services with any regularity. While John McCain refused to discuss his beliefs during that 1999 debate, any candidate taking a pass today (perhaps including himself) might as well pack her or his bags and return home. It is unlikely that Thomas Jefferson would pass muster in 2007.
What a sad state of affairs that a country professing freedom of thought and religious expression (assumably including non-participation) would categorically rule out an atheist President. It is also inexplicable. There is no proof whatsoever that believers necessarily are more prudent, less likely to engage in war or are more honest than non-believers. Perhaps some, even most, of us gain great insight and comfort from our religious beliefs and a moral compass to boot, but how and if these manifest themselves in our actions varies greatly. The devout Jack Abramoff is a corrupt thief; the non-believer Bill Gates devotes billions to help eradicate disease in Africa. Even so, a candidate voicing the slightest possible religious doubt – saying prayer doesn’t protect bridges is in itself highly risky – is impossible. This when, according to the Barna research group, people disassociating themselves from any religious group constitute the fastest growing segment of the population. They still represent a minority, 14.1% but that’s up and climbing from only 8% in the 1990s. A 2002 Gallop/USA Today poll found that nearly half of us are disaffected from organized religion. Considering those statistics, it stands to reason that a good number of doubters and non-believers currently occupy seats in Congress and elsewhere in government or are running for office. Where are they? The answer is, in the closet. Just as Gays were once forced to hide there (and remain subject to “don’t ask, don’t tell” in more places than the military), atheists had better keep their heads down and their feelings to themselves.
Think about the implications of this charade. Not only are we discouraging some of our best and brightest people from considering public service, we are inviting hypocrisy among many of those hold or aspire to office. All of us have the right to know how candidates stand on issues of war and peace, on the welfare of the citizenry, on global warming and the rest. Knowing their general political orientation and attitude toward governance will help us judge whether they merit our individual support and vote. But how is their view of a “personal God” or the power of prayer relevant? It’s not. We do have standards for the Presidency – citizenship (no second career for Tony Blair), born in the USA (Arnold can’t run) and age (twenty-something’s, not yet), but I don’t remember belief or religious affiliation being on the list of requirements. Given the role religion and the deeply religious have been playing in Washington in the last seven years and are playing around the world, perhaps it’s time to take religion off the political table altogether. My advice to the hosts of the next debates, move emails like Mr. Ford’s into trash bin and go on to something that really reflects upon our common interest and will impact upon our future as a nation.