And why can a revered Buddhist address school kids without controversy, when a comparably devout Christian figure surely would draw objection? The answer to both questions involves perceived threat.
Secularists and non-believers don’t feel threatened in the least by Buddhism. It’s a withering faith-tradition, with few converts anywhere in the world outside of Hollywood and academia. According to Phillip Jenkins, Professor of Religious Studies at Penn State, by the year 2050 there will be fewer Buddhists in the world than Pentecostal Christians (just one of the growing subsets of Evangelical Christianity). Buddhism remains a gentle, exotic and largely irrelevant faith in the United States, and a retreating civilization around the world.
Christianity, on the other hand, seems unmistakably vital, aggressive, powerful and influential, as the recent visit of the Pope demonstrated in unmistakable terms. For those who distrust religious enthusiasm, and want a minimum of challenge or interference in their secular lives, Christianity presents a direct and compelling challenge.
By the same token, no one objects to Hillary’s God-talk because, in essence, nobody fully believes it. Her frequent encounters with the Holy Spirit sound no more formidable than Dennis Kucinich’s sighting of a UFO (in the company of Shirley McLaine – now that’s a problem).
As for Hillary, she can’t point to a single issue in which her supposedly “deep commitment to my Methodist faith” actually shaped her thinking, beyond a very bland and generalized concern for the poor as “the least among us.” She doesn’t scare non-believers because all the religious overtones in her speeches and interviews can’t erase the overwhelming impression they receive that “she’s one of us” – and her positions on abortion, homosexuality, stem cells, and most church-state issues further reassure them that she’s still on their side on the culture war.
Usually, it’s considered a good thing if an individual demonstrates fervent and life-changing religiosity, or if a particular faith has seen vast increases in numerical strength because of its passion and vibrancy.
When it comes to the secular establishment that dominates most American Institutions, however, they’d prefer the sort of faith that makes fewer demands and draws fewer converts, and look more kindly on a religion that’s dwindling than a church that’s clearly on the March.
It’s also easy to understand why those who warn against imminent “theocracy” feel far more comfortable with a politician whose well-advertised interaction with the Holy Spirit no one in the country seems to take too seriously.