Henry David Thoreau once remarked on the "great flapping ear" of the American public wanting to know everything about everything. And, in spite of the elephantine imagery he seemed to use, the contemporary curiosity crosses all party lines. Yet, at times that curiosity, while insatiable, is a little like an internet search engine let loose on a topic of interest. The result is sensory overload on a topic while other equally significant news goes unread. Certainly, the surfeit of information can itself blind us to something that in isolation might be the news of the century, were it not surrounded by other over-covered events of a lifetime.
Most of the past year has been taken up with the drumbeat of politics against the white noise of a presidential election. It is the "silly" time of the quadrennium, when Americans of the United States variety evidence yet again their enduring optimism. No matter the fix, no matter the apparently insurmountable nature of some of the issues of public concern, a goodly number of party flag-waving supporters respond to balloons and promises. And, yes, America does continue to believe in the man on the white horse! Thank God for the rest of the world that such optimism survives in the bleak times of our new century.
Given the existential issues at play it is probably nothing but inevitable that the faith of the political process has come to assume a capital F, as in religion. And while the aforementioned masking effect of news saturation has sometimes obscured the shift in emphasis, it is very real nonetheless, and deserving of comment in this magazine.
Of course we had a little taste of what might come in 2000 when then candidate Bush selected Jesus Christ as a significant figure, because "He changed my heart." Some even wondered then if we were not being led to vote in a plebiscite on the spirituality of the candidates. As it turned out the hard realities of political war soon overshadowed that "new wave" of campaigning.
And that might have been it but for the events between that election and now. The new administration adopted a take no prisoners style in advancing its Faith Based Initiative against the "wall of separation" norms. Legislation was quickly passed in Congress as HR7. Senate passage was virtually assured, but clearly not fast enough for some. "It's not a dictatorship in Washington," reassured the President in telling an audience in New Orleans about his executive order making faith-based groups eligible for federal subsidies; "but I tried to make it one in that instance."
And since 9/11 the words "God bless America" have become a national political prayer of sorts; heightened by the sense of threat from fanatics who regularly intone the name of God and their holy books. Religion is now not just private devotions and faith. It is related to national security and our sense of who we are.
So it is no surprise that moving toward the election of 2004 religion and faith issues figure mightily in the national debate.
It is no surprise that candidates from both parties are at pains to present their religious credentials. In the case of the president that even meant sitting stoneface through a sermon by a cleric who insisted on lecturing the Sunday crowd on the responsibilities of the wealthy! And John Kerry, of the foursquare reputation but hitherto unremarked public religion, is now regularly seen taking mass. In short these are two men seeking to satisfy the criteria for deacon as well as civic leader.
And how can a public faith be wrong for a public figure? We have become accustomed to politicians with styles more of the rich and famous, and suitably worldly wise. But times have changed and naturally there is a hunger for spiritual substance.
This magazine is foursquare for the separation of church and state–as mandated by the constitution–but we have never argued that personal faith expression has no place in public life. George Washington and others in the pantheon of American life unabashedly spoke of their personal faith in a higher power. Why should we deny that right to contemporary leaders?
I think it healthy for leading figures in a democratic society to be honest and forthright about their faith. Of course talk of personal faith, and the presumed moral tenor of the life that talk implies, is one thing. It is quite another if it signals a particular sectarian agenda. It is quite another thing if it is designed to manipulate faith communities and project a particular agenda apart from the charter of a civil democratic system.
Now the manipulation can just as easily come from the faith community of the political figure, as from they themselves.
That is clearly the case with Presidential candidate John Kerry. In my lifetime I have not seen such a concerted effort by a church to force a member to embrace political directives. Many feared that President John Kennedy would be in thrall to the political leanings of Rome. It proved not to be. But now we have some of the leading U.S. Catholic figures saying that it was a mistake not to demand that Kennedy obey the church agenda–and that with Kerry they will not make that mistake again! It has been a media bonanza to cover the professions of faith by John Kerry, and the threats by various church leaders to withhold communion from him unless he complies. Many people probably think it a silly tussle. But the dynamic is stern: if the Roman Catholic Church withholds the sacraments, it is, as Senator Ted Kennedy's wife pointed out in a letter sent to the New York Times, to basically excommunicate someone–that is remove them from the salvation the church offers.
That is more than the usual leverage on a believer's actions. So far Senator Kerry has held to his personal principles, even as he is cast as an unfaithful son of the church. How he would resist church dictates as U.S. president is another question!
President Bush has never been shy about faith matters. And God bless him for his personal bravery! But his consistent promotion of the faith-based initiative is troubling to those careful of church-state separation. As implemented by the various religious factions that have clustered around Washington of late, FBI is nothing other than their ticket to power and influence–and that should trouble the electorate.
Just one of the many bad ways that FBI can work against religious freedom is shown graphically in a story run by The Detroit News on August 27 this year. A young Catholic named Joe Hanas was arrested for a non-violent drug offence. Instead of jail time, the judge sent him to a Pentecostal rehabilitation program. It is hardly likely the judge intended it, but the in order to complete the rehabilitation Joe was asked to run the gauntlet of religious coercion, that kept him from practicing his faith. Counselors demeaned his church, calling it "witchcraft," and required that he learn Pentecostal principles. His only recourse was to request transfer to another program where he would not be coerced on religion.
As the news item put it: " The judge viewed his early withdrawal from the program as an indication that Hanas was not committed to overcoming his substance abuse...Programs like the one Hanas found himself in are common. In fact, these are the kinds of programs that President Bush funded when he was governor of Texas; drug addiction treated as a sin and Bible study is provided as a treatment. It is also the kind of program that Bush wants to fund under his faith based initiatives, in which religious indoctrination is dressed up to look like social welfare."
Yes, we need even more public expressions of faith by public officials. But we should howl down expressions of religious control. As the Good Book says, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free." In our democratic system we are doubly free. Free under God to seek and know spiritual truth. And free under the Constitution of the United States from any state coercion to believe.
Lincoln E. Steed,
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."