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Jesus and thePoliticians

by Wendy Kaminer

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 2.

Now that almost all the presidential candidates have declared their allegiance to Christ, reporters and pundits have finally noticed that religiosity, not secularism, is in vogue. A democratic operative announces that "the Democratic Party is going to take back God this time," (making the Almighty sound like a child in a custody dispute), and soon Al Gore confides to millions of Americans that he too has been born again. George Bush famously chooses Christ as his favorite "philosopher/thinker," and other Republican candidates follow suit. Suddenly, the media notices that the campaign is suffused with God talk.

It would be more accurate to point out that the campaign is suffused with Christ talk. General references to God have always been part of civic life. It's true that religious particularity, mainly evangelical Christianity, has occasionally intruded into political campaigns, most notably through William Jennings Bryan. But in modern America, major party candidates have generally steered clear of sectarianism. Why is it emerging today, at a time of increasing religious diversity?

Conventional political wisdom asserts that today's religious revivalism reflects a concern about character and a search for "authenticity" created by the Clinton scandals. Never mind that the only evidence for this assertion is its popularity among pundits. Never mind that Clinton himself is quite religious; to a skeptic, his political and personal failings are evidence of religion's irrelevancy to character, not religion's virtues. But voters who assume that religion-true religion-is essential to virtue are apt to dismiss Clinton's religiosity as false and persist in their efforts to reform public life with the one and only Truth.

While we are indeed a country of many religious faiths, Christianity maintains its dominance, even if its market share is slipping. In part, the prevalence of Christ talk in the presidential campaign is an obvious testament to the visibility and influence of right-wing Christians. Twenty years ago, Jimmy Carter's status as a born-again Christian seemed almost exotic, in the Northeast, at least. Not everyone knew quite what it meant to be "born again" in Jesus. Today, the rhetoric of Christian evangelism is part of the vernacular.

All the candidates indulging in Christ talk are Christian-members of the dominant faith and that is no coincidence. Try to imagine a candidate for national office choosing Muhammad as his hero, instead of Christ, or advertising his Hindu heritage. Or consider a simple historical example: When John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he carefully (and necessarily) stressed his belief in the separation of church and state, not his religious belief, which placed him in a then suspect minority. As a Catholic, Kennedy encountered religious bigotry; he needed to assure voters that he would heed their voices, not the dictates of the pope.

But, oddly enough, the current wave of religious sectarianism also reflects some nonsectarian, quasi-religious influences-notably the influence of popular therapies. Presidential candidates are regaling us with stories of their personal odysseys, as if the nation were one large support group. Can they help it if all their journeys point toward Christ? It's worth noting that, before Al Gore testified to his relationship with the Lord, he offered up his personal development stories, focusing on searing familial experiences-his sister's death from cancer and his son's near fatal accident. Before Bill Clinton asked for forgiveness from God and the nation at a highly publicized prayer breakfast in 1998, he told us about his alcoholic stepfather, dysfunctional family, and his own role as family mediator, explaining his penchant for compromise.

The Christ talk that marks political discourse today is one form of therapeutic politics, derived partly from, the recovery movement. Denizens of the spiritualized, mainly liberal therapeutic culture have inadvertently collaborated with conservative Christians in creating a public appetite for confessional testimony. Both Oprah and Pat Robertson, and their ilk, have cultivated the popular taste for stories about personal epiphanies and "growth experiences," whether they involve addiction and recovery or sin and redemption (consider George Bush's "irresponsible" youth) and named or unnamed Higher Powers.

Of course, sectarianism in the political sphere is considerably more dangerous than the vague spiritual nostrums of popular therapies and the tiresome penchant for testifying. Sectarianism threatens religious freedom. It favors government support of popular sects, often at the expense of religious minorities. It creates two classes of citizens-the saved and the unsaved. (George Bush has acknowledged that he does not decide who will get into heaven, but I bet he thinks he knows who won't.) Spirituality movements, however, generally celebrate spiritual diversity. Pop gurus are, after all, sensitive to the demands of a pluralistic marketplace, and the vaguer their theologies, the wider their audience. The therapeutic culture will never look good to me; but lately, it seems a little less bad. 

Wendy Kaminer is an attorney, social critic, and public policy fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She writes on popular nonsense and is the author of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety.

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