Theodore Roosevelt declared, “The White House is a bully pulpit.” Indeed, the pulpit of the American presidency is as influential as any pulpit in the world, and all presidents have used their office to speak out on contemporary issues. While that pulpit has not generally been a platform for religious pronouncements, candidates during the 2008 presidential campaign are speaking out to communicate spiritual content in unprecedented ways.
People who heretofore have disdained religion suddenly are using the presidential campaign “bully pulpit” in order to gain an advantage among those they perceive to be highly motivated by moral issues. Politics, as the saying goes, makes strange bedfellows; –– candidates from the left, both Republican and Democratic, are going after the same voting bloc, those millions of voting evangelicals who go to the booth to cast their votes for like-minded public servants with a strong emphasis on the moral dimension, if not Biblical stance, as it relates to the pivotal issues.
At the same time that some politicos are claiming that the religious right is passé and never did have the electoral power that some claim that it had, candidates are vying with each other to climb into bed with the voting demographic generally conceded to have put George W. Bush in the White House. With none of the Republican candidates thus far having caught fire with the religious right, the values voters, candidates from both major political parties are hiring consultants to help them craft a message that will appeal to evangelicals. With slight changes in rhetoric, candidates can spout religious-sounding themes that they think will seduce voters from the religious right. They are blithely unaware how often their synthetic faith-talk is slightly off-key and creates dissonance in the ears of those who know the tune. Contrary to the presumptions of elites inside the beltway, evangelicals are neither stupid nor tone-deaf.
Strange, at a time when the left wants to build higher barricades between church and state, today’s candidates for public office are working overtime to convince the public that they have church “cred.” Voters have always put trustworthiness at the top of the necessary qualifications for president; they ask, “Whom do you trust?” A candidate’s faith is often taken, though not without error, as a good indicator of his or her trustworthiness. Some voters even put the candidates’ credentials through a filter of faith. Others examine the candidate’s worldview and stance on specific issues. Whether it is true or not, candidates in this election cycle are convinced that having at least a tinge of the devout will help deliver the vote.Ironically, some people who in the past have self-identified as Evangelical are adjusting their language in order to distance themselves from the religious right –– painting themselves as more sophisticated and nuanced in their views than the rubes on the religious right. They are describing their faith in non-biblical terms –– emphasizing mainstream values, populism, taking up the labels and themes of the liberal left (like social justice and racial reconciliation) and latching onto secular causes, like the environment, poverty and immigration. If they talk about abortion at all, it is in the context of preventing the “necessity” for abortion. If they talk about the Bible at all, it is in a secular context. For instance, during recent debates on destructive unethical embryonic stem cell research, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talked about science taking research “to a place that is biblical in its power to cure.”
The left is also taking advantage of the fact that a significant number of evangelicals (according to George Barna’s polling) live no differently than their so-called “progressive” counterparts. These believers are less concerned about their salvation than their status,: more concerned about money than morals. They are theological sponges –– absorbing anything that sounds traditional and/or religious. Above all, these believers avoid conflict. A basic tenet of their faith is for everyone to “just get along.” So, should a candidate have the temerity to take a strong moral stance on an issue that brings themhim or her into conflict with someone else’s position, many voters who are nominally religious feel uncomfortable and will side with the candidate who has the least controversial perspective. Thus, they like the sound of a leftist politician’s plea to make abortion “safe, legal and rare.”
Voters tend to go for the person that makes them most comfortable. Often the choice of a leader is more intuitive and gut-level than it is cerebral. Right now, none of the top candidates fit into the religious right’s comfort zone. The religious right will not be comfortable with a fake. Nonetheless, we’ll continue to see leftist frontrunners from both major political parties torture the language trying to look conservative.
However, no amount of rhetoric about our common American values will obscure the policy litmus tests on the great moral issues of the day upon which our humanity hangs; nor should it. People cast votes for a specific worldview and philosophical perspective that in turn determines how an office holder will come down on particular important issues. Those positions ought to be clear and unequivocal rather than obscured by rhetoric and clever obfuscation.