One of the results of Iowa’s last man standing outcome is that the new Romney challenger is perhaps the most socially/religiously conservative candidate in the race. Rick Santorum’s tenure in Congress was marked by battles against choice and for, among others, abstinence-only and creationism teaching in schools. He is one of those evolution is a theory kind of guys. Of course he vehemently opposes to same-sex unions and his recent exchange with New Hampshire college students illustrates how doctrinaire but vapid his arguments. Santorum, who will be remembered for equating homosexuality and bestiality, now suggests same-sex unions equate to a certain next step: polygamy, in this case, say, between three men. Let’s not even begin to consider what kind of a mind can conjure up such a weird argument. If that’s the intellectual case for the things religious rightists oppose — marriage equality, reproductive rights and stem cell research among them — bring it on.
Iowa has always been fertile ground for the right’s religious agenda. It is there that we routinely find candidates across the board pandering to those who would break down the walls of separation. It is in Iowa that Michelle Bachman preached in church the week before the caucus. It didn’t help. It is a place of confession and redemption, think Newt wearing his newborn Catholicism on his sleeve, with the object of his adulterous subterfuge Callista hanging dutifully on his bent arm. Iowa is where the Reverend Governor Huckabee emerged victorious in 2008 only to evaporate almost immediately in a sober cool New Hampshire primary night. To be fair, Democratic candidates, including the now president and state secretary did their share of religious pandering last time around. New Hampshire also boasts its religious conservatives, albeit the New England kind, and even more so does South Carolina where far right evangelicals abound. But don’t expect religion to dominate for very much longer. Santorum will implode, not only because of his message, but also because of his extreme, sometimes downright weird, rhetoric. McCain and Obama’s command performances at Rick Warren’s Saddle Back are a distant memory and unlikely to repeat themselves. Whatever happened to Warren?
It isn’t only that today’s voters are more focused on the economy, which in my view has always been the primary interest of the American electorate, but that in the real world this kind of religious fervor is on the wane. Twenty-five percent of young Americans are dis-identifying with religion. That number is likely to grow, which is exactly what Romney hopes will happen to his still solid twenty-five. Santorum’s views on marriage no longer mirror the majority and, while it is never smart to predict Supreme Court decisions, may ultimately be of no legal consequence. People like the former Pennsylvania senator attribute our weak economy to a decline in family values, but David Brooks somewhat supporting views notwithstanding, that is a hard case to make. I don’t remember it being part of anyone’s economic analysis, left or right. But that’s another discussion.
I don’t think religious confessions will fly this time around, but at the same time Iowa and the entire GOP candidate field is a reminder that the faith card is still being played. You don’t have to be the late Chris Hitchens to feel that religion has no place in politics. For one thing, we want our political leaders to justify their positions with provable facts — I did say we want. One may confidently believe in God says, attribute one’s actions to the divine, but proving that is another matter. Not one of those who make such claims can give a credible response to the simple question, how do you know that? I believe it to be so — sincere as it may be — just doesn’t cut it. When it comes to God says, my claim is safely as good, or as weak and unsubstantiated, as is yours. Moreover, however egalitarian we may be, it is usually a claim on behalf of the truth and true God of the claimant’s faith. As the writer and student of religion Stephen Prothero points out in his book of that name, God is not One. Indeed, what a person of one belief system says with such certainly is God’s view may be, and often is, diametrically the opposite of another’s attribution. Remember that both presidential candidates in 2008 were literally forced into confessing their fidelity to Christ. That might conform to the views of a majority of Americans, but not to all of us, committed theists and non-theists among them. Religion in politics is a slippery slope that, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, divides rather than brings us together.
And perhaps that’s really the point here. We have enough in this country that divides us. I have no particular hope that this election season or the coming years, regardless of who is running things, will bridge that divisiveness. It seems clear that even President Obama who ran first time around on bringing us together — giving voice to Lyndon Johnson’s dictum let us reason together — to his governing has thrown in the bi-partisan towel. Many on his side applaud that change, myself included. The truth is you can’t play a civil game of baseball when your opponent is playing knock-down football on the same field. Let us reason together, was another time you’ll say. Perhaps so, but don’t tell me, or worse tell yourself, that we are better off that way. We are not. How much or how little government we should have is a legitimate question. Where God stands in all of this adds nothing to finding an answer. If anything, it gets in the way.