Oh, I just must jump into this conversation that Pastor Bess is putting forth today about religion and politics. I am so glad that he wrote about this today because it is a discussion that we have been taught to avoid in polite company. And look at where this is getting us – deep into a political race filled with theological idealists who are bent on aggressively dictating their religion on an entire nation through the legislative process. As Pastor Bess points out, religion and politics have long been part of America’s political landscape, only now we are seeing a rise of extremism with one hand on the Bible and the other clutching the U.S. Constitution with a clenched fist.
Pastor Bess brings the mainstream Christian world view into focus for us as he addresses the Old Testament theology that is shared by those he refers to as the Moral Majority in their heyday, and we we are all learning are the Christian Dominionists in the 21st Century.
It is tempting to lump these religious extremists in with mainstream Christians – but we must be careful to recognize that they are as different as the mainstream Muslim population is to their Dominionist counterparts – the Islamic Fundamentalist sect of Wahabbist.
RELIGION AND POLITICS WILL ALWAYS MIX IN AMERICA
Darlene and I are political junkies. Even numbered years are always more exciting than odd numbered years. When we come to a presidential election year, life really gets interesting. American presidential elections are like none other. They are beautifully chaotic. We are already warming up for 2012.
American politics are made especially chaotic because we are a highly religious people, who give lip service to separation of church and state. Somehow we want our political figures to be religious, and at the same time want them to leave their religion out of political encounters. The reality is that American politics at the highest levels were dominated by a Masonic brand of Protestantism for our entire history until John F. Kennedy. In 1960 when Kennedy and Richard Nixon competed for the presidency, there was a sizeable minority that firmly believed that a Roman Catholic president would make America subservient to Rome and the Catholic Pope. The story that circulated and that made the point was this: Kennedy planned to change the name of the Statue of Liberty to Our Lady of the Harbor. Kennedy’s Catholicism was such a major issue that he made a trip to the hostile environs of Texas to make a clear statement that he was a better American than he was a Roman Catholic. He won by the narrowest of margins.
It was the 1960 presidential election that brought the issue of a political candidate’s religion into the open. The practical effect was that religion became an ongoing and open topic in American politics.
During this same period a unique American Evangelicalism began to develop. All of American Evangelicalism as we know it today has its roots in the Baptist and Methodist traditions. In their American history Baptists and Methodists were aggressive proselyting denominations. In the last half of the 20th century they, except in the South, became less aggressive but spawned both the independent and the Pentecostal Evangelical movements.
At first, American Evangelicals were politically quiet. More than any other person, Jerry Falwell perceived the potential political power of the burgeoning Evangelical movement and went into action. In 1979, he and others started a political movement which they called The Moral Majority. The political life of American Evangelicals was given a giant push into the world of politics by The Moral Majority and Evangelicals have been a dominant political force ever since. Every American president since Jimmy Carter has found it necessary to make known their born-again experience with Jesus.
The 2008 presidential election became an even more complex web of religion and politics. John McCain quietly became an Evangelical. Mitt Romney made a speech that reminded many people of John Kennedy’s Texas declaration. Romney promised to be more American than Mormon. Barack Obama clarified his relationship to his Chicago pastor and the church where he was born again. His denial of being a Muslim is still questioned by some.
John McCain surprised the entire nation when he chose Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential running mate. She was no ordinary outspoken Evangelical. She was a Pentecostal Evangelical. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing segment of American Christianity. The rise of Sarah Palin is truly historic. Sarah Palin marked the active entrance into national politics of non-rational Christianity in which personal experience trumps all other considerations. The staying power of Sarah Palin surprises some, but it does not surprise those who grasp the strength of American Pentecostalism.
Mitt Romney is considered the front runner for the Republican nomination for the office of president of the United States. In a campaign dominated by jobs, health care, finances, and unpopular wars, nothing much has been said about Mitt Romney’s religion. In Robert Putnam’s and David Campbell’s book about American religion entitled American Grace, the authors make comments about Mitt Romney and the difficulties he has by being a Mormon. Their comments can be summarized as follows: Mormons, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics have much in common. They are pro-life, oppose gay marriage and speak forcefully about family values. Mormons, Evangelicals and Pentecostals are all aggressive proselyting faiths. They appear to be quite similar. But are they?
Many Christians, and especially Evangelicals and Pentecostals, consider Mormons not simply heretics, but a cult. Voting for a Christian with a differing opinion can be accepted, but voting for a candidate who is a member of a cult is an entirely different matter. Most political leaders will speak of tolerance and acceptance of religious diversity; however, polls show a different story. In a 2008 Harris poll, 58 percent of Evangelicals indicated they would be bothered by a Mormon president. The tensions produced by the intersection of religion and politics are underplayed by columnists and television talking heads. In the process they are missing a huge part of the story of the 2012 presidential elections. And we have said nothing about the Jews, Muslims, or other non-Christian faiths.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.
If only this really were “the end”, as Pastor Bess routinely states at the conclusion of all his posts. Sadly, it is actually only the beginning because most Americans don’t have a clue about the religious cult of Dominionism that should cause equal concern to that of Mormonism. Both are recent recreations of a twisted theology that uses mainstream Christianity as their launching off point to claim authority over others.
The reality of today’s Republican politics is that a Mormon candidate will never see the nomination. It has been soundly infested by Christian Dominionists who believe that their bible-based cult is “the way, the life and the body of Jesus Christ”. Hell, not only does a Mormon not stand a chance of being nominated – but neither does a Catholic! So it wouldn’t matter that the Eye of Newt has managed to destroy his own political career (with the help of his 3rd bride) because he would be relegated to the sidelines anyhow.
This is why the 21st Century version of the Grand Ol’ Party has such an array of Dominionist zealots vying for the presidency. What takes precedence over any real sense of competencies, or knowledge, or skill-set to actually BE the leader of the United States of America is the ability to produce a born again birth certificate and statement of faith. We have to look no further than the frontrunners who have or will annoounce their candidacy such as Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry, Palin, and Herman Cain.
All five of these political Dominionists have climbed under the skirts of Christianity and registered as Republican in order to run for office. To criticize them or alert people about how dangerous their brand of Dominionist Christianity is makes one suspect as an anti-religious/anti-conservative, when in fact they are not Christian nor Republican! Ronald Reagan would be too liberal for these zealots.
The problems we face in America need to be solved through secular proposals and through compromise for the betterment of ALL Americans. The LAST thing we need from the right or the left are debates based in religious extremism. Since the 2010 elections we have seen nothing brought forth as remedies to people’s sufferings in this country due to job losses, medical needs and future growth proposals for this nation as a whole. If we are going to continue to grow as a nation – the answer is separation of church & state, rolling up our sleeves and getting to work to solve the problems that impact all of us – liberal or conservative; religious or not; young & old.