Saturday, January 7, 2012

Evangelical Candidates: Personal Faith vs. Public Policy

by Nomad
A Sin Against God
In the 2012 election year, the subject of a presidential candidate’s religious beliefs is once again becoming a matter of public discussion. Of course, this isn’t, by any measure, the first time. In fact, in modern American politics, the issue of personal faith has become a more or less common feature in American elections. 
What has changed is to what degree this once personal issue has become a candidate's "selling point" to the politically powerful Christian Right Wing of the Republican party. 

When this problem was brought up in the 1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon election the matter was mentioned because some people were concerned that Kennedy could not represent all people and that there might well be conflicts between the Catholic doctrine and the Constitution. How this problematic issue was dealt with, the answer Kennedy gave to critics, is an example of the kind of politics and politicians that have come and gone.

The excellent chronicle, The Making of a President-1960, gives us more details. During the primaries, Kennedy had begun to face strong resistance in the Midwest among Protestant voters. Much of that was based on the issue of his faith. Up until that time, Kennedy had believed that a single statement was enough to clarify the matter. “I refuse to believe that I was denied the right to be President on the day I was baptized.”

In the West Virginia Democratic primary, however, Kennedy decided that it was time to confront the challenge. Despite Kennedy’s seeming advantages, a Lou Harris poll three days before the election showed Humphrey with a 45-42 edge. 
In a paid telecast on the Sunday evening before the election he tried to defuse the religious issue. In fact, Kennedy used almost ten or twelve minutes of the half hour show to answer the religious question. As Theodore White writes:
He reviewed the long war of the church on state and state on church and that greatest of all constitutional decisions: to separate church from state. Then, peering into the camera and talking directly to the people of West Virginia, he proceeded:
.. so when any man stands on the steps of the Capitol and takes the oath of office of the President, he is swearing to support the separation of church and state; he puts one hand on the Bible and raises the other hand to God as he takes the oath. And if he breaks his oath, he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him- and should impeach him- but he is committing a sin against God.
The outcome of this masterful political move? Herb Little, writing for the Wext Virginia Encyclopedia explains:
After that Sunday evening telecast, Lou Harris conducted another poll. The result gave Kennedy a slight edge. His edge was anything but slight in the voting two days later. The statewide totals: Kennedy 236,510; Humphrey 152,187. Once the outcome was clear, Humphrey announced he was no longer a presidential candidate, and Kennedy said, ‘‘I think we have now buried the religious issue once and for all.’’
To Shape Government 
Years later, the matter of faith became if not a critical, then a much-discussed issue with Jimmy Carter who, as a born-again Christian, was seen as something of a novelty when he ran against Gerald Ford in 1976. Being America's first unelected president, Ford was considered by many to be a product of cronyism and of the corruption that had plagued  the Nixon administration. There was an intense desire to put Watergate  and Vietnam and all the shadiness of Washington politics into the past. The nation was disgusted by what it saw as the stink of Washington and sought a clean, moral outsider. From the Deep South emerged a soft-spoken Baptist completely alien to the machinations of high politics. The mainstream media were, at times, curious, suspicious and cynical of Carter's open declaration of faith. Most of the jaded journalists seemed convinced it was gimmick and that, if you scratched the surface, you'd find just another ambitious candidate. 
Active for many years in public relations in the evangelical community, writer Jim Jewell, gives us this description of Carter
Jimmy Carter was different, and observers of his 1976 bid for the presidency readily recognized it. As a candidate, Carter spoke very openly and candidly about his faith, his commitment to Christ, his love for Scripture, and his desire to bring “a new spirit” to government. He quickly became a symbol of the rekindled religious and political vigor of American evangelicalism.
 Carter said: “I’m a father and I’m a Christian; I’m a businessman and I’m a Christian; I’m a farmer and I’m a Christian; I’m a politician and I’m a Christian. The most important thing in my life beyond all else is Jesus Christ.”
Based on his Christian testimony and toothy optimism, I—like many other Christian believers–supported Jimmy Carter in 1976 and delayed my final college work to become part of his Iowa campaign staff. I considered his election a harbinger of good will and healing for our nation, and marveled that such an outspoken Christian was sitting in the Oval Office.
As president, he continued to teach Sunday school, found occasions to share his faith with foreign leaders, readily admits in his post-presidential works that religion was an indispensable guide for his presidential behavior, and believes that Americans “have a responsibility to try to shape government so that it does exemplify the will of God.”
Ironically, two of Jimmy Carter’s campaign workers in 1976 were none other than Marcus Bachmann and candidate-to-be Michele Marie Amble. More ironic still, the pair dropped their support for Carter when the president proved not quite as willing to mix and match religious and political views. According to one biography of Bachmann:
But throughout Carter's presidency, Bachmann says she grew disappointed with his liberal approach to public policy, from support for legalized abortion to economic decisions that sent gas prices soaring. Next election she voted for Reagan.
The Bachmanns weren’t the only ones disappointed with President Carter and his failure to implement “true Christian values.” Many felt that Carter had, in effect, betrayed them with, of all things, his humanitarianism. The Evangelicals had mistakenly assumed that Carter, as president, would be as conservative as they themselves were. 
Pat Robertson took Carter to task on a range of issues, none of which were directly related to matters of faith. In 1978, he criticized Carter for not keeping his campaign promises such as reducing the budget deficit, controlling spending and cuttig the size of the federal government. He complained about Carter creating 52,000 new federal jobs and he attacked the newly proposed Departments of Education and Energy. 
The final straw for Robertson came when Health and Human Services Patrica Harris (who he claimed was an avowed enemy of Christianity) told audiences at Princeton University that "Any attempt to Christianize America would be dangerous for democracy."
It wasn't long before the Christian Right, with all of its newly politically-mobilized members, began a search for a replacement for Carter. Somebody with charisma, a person more willing to put his faith first. By 1980, Ronald Reagan, saw the opportunity and stepped up to seize the mantle as the Christianity's next best hope.   

As the book, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right, observes:
In California, polls prior to the election indicated that born-again Christians supported Reagan over Carter by a two-to-one margin. In Carter's own Georgia, conservative ministers formed the GEorgia Pastor's Forum to fight for "Christian issues,"specifically the fight against abortion, homosexuality and feminism. Larry Johnson, a spokesman for the group, explained: "In 1976, many pastors were sold on Jimmy Carter because of his "born-again" Christian claims. Since then we've found out that this "born-again man supports the Equal Right Amendment (ERA) and is not against homosexuality as a life preference." The forum, Johnson concluded, supported Reagan.
Unheeded Warnings on Both Sides
Meanwhile. Reagan was attempting to woo the Christian conservatives with statements that must have sent shivers of glee up the spines of politically-minded religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Reagan masterfully courted the conservative religious groups with various promises based on “family values.”
The marriage of the Republican party to the Christian Right was official when Reagan made statements before the 1976 election about “the increasing tendency of the state interfering with religion."  Reagan, in a press conference, urged schools to teach the biblical story of creation alongside the theory of evolution. While many Americans had thought this subject had been laid rest some 50 years before, Reagan's message was clearly received. And when he described abortion as "taking of a life," it was music to the ears of the evangelists.
This direct appeal to the Christian activists by Reagan signified a formal alliance between Republican Neo-Conservatives and the Christian Coalition. The Christian Right, once a rather benign fixture on the American political scene since the 70s now was about to take on a whole new life as king-maker for the Republican party.
Its emergence on the political scene was little noticed until the 1980 elections, when the Republican Party not only achieved a landslide presidential election, but turned 12 seats in the U.S. Senate and took majority status. Few had predicted such an outcome, and political observers search for an explanation for having missed the incoming political upheaval. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, then the head of the religious conservative group, Moral Majority, had an answer: that he and his organization has helped to mobilize as many as four million previously apolitical evangelicals into electoral participation that year and they had supported Ronald Reagan and the GOP.
Not everyone saw this coalition as a fine and noble thing. Rev. Billy Graham, who had maintained close friendships with several Republican leaders in the past, urged the the Christian Right to keep its distance from conservative political causes. He told Falwell in February, 1981, "The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it."
Essayist and author Jane Devin, 
in an article for Huffington Post, sums up the rise of this new political force this way:
The Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and The Christian Coalition were all formed within years of each other as religio-political groups. Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson, the respective leaders of these movements, formed a triad that sought to influence politics through a gospel of neo-conservative Christian rhetoric aimed at millions of faithful adherents whose votes, it was hoped, could swing the socio-political pendulum away from progress and back to "traditional values."
Since that time, in one respect or another, the Christian Right has adroitly manipulated and has, in turn, been manipulated by the Republican conservatives. Generally speaking, the Republicans have got much more from the alliance than the Christian organizations. At least, in the short term. By throwing in a few well-chosen phrases aimed at perking Christian ears, Republicans successfully won over the mobilized Christian voters in search of a friend in Washington. After the election, of course, things changed.
However, taking in the larger perspective, it isn’t easy to distinguish the winners from the losers. The - some would say, backward views of the Evangelicals regarding such issues as the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, the removal of sexual education in public schools in favor of abstinence-only programs, and the banning of most things related to same-sex relationships have limited the party's overall appeal to moderate Republican voters.
Over time, the narrow agenda of the Christian political groups has pushed the conservatives further and further to the right until moderate Republicans are very nearly extinct. Devin suggests that the Christian Right is the chief suspect of the murder of the Republican Party itself:
There was no room for the moderate middle in this "with us or against us" equation, as witnessed by the public shredding of moderate Republican politicians like Arlen Specter, a Jew, and a vocal critic of the Christian right. "What some are trying to do is take over the party," Specter warned in 1994. "That's bad for the Republican Party and bad for the country." Specter became a target of the religious right for his support of Roe v. Wade, and his refusal to bend to the will of religious power brokers like Dobson, who attempted to use his influence to block Specter's 2005 bid to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Evangelists are quite open about their goal. Evangelist Pat Robertson's determination to wrest the reins of power away from secular control and to create an American Christian theocracy are hardly secret. Back in 1992, he stated:
If Christian people work together, they can succeed during this decade in winning back control of the institutions that have been taken from them over the past 70 years. Expect confrontations that will be not only unpleasant but at times physically bloody.... This decade will not be for the faint of heart, but the resolute. Institutions will be plunged into wrenching change. We will be living through one of the most tumultuous periods of human history. When it is over, I am convinced God's people will emerge victorious.
His crusade carries on with a younger generation of leaders and faux historian scholars with faux interpretations of the Constitution. United with obedient politicians willing to do the bidding of God's people and politically aligned corporations, the Christian Far Right has had no shortage of political muscle.

Outrage of the Gingerbread Men
However, the Christian Right has in some ways been undermined by its own success. Over-confidence in their own moral authority has led them to embarrass themselves repeatedly on the national stage. For example, when the Maryland Moral Majority attracted national ridicule when it began a campaign against "anatomically correct" gingerbread figures that a bakery was selling. The negative attention backfired when gingerbread sales suddenly skyrocketed.

Pat Robertson is constantly cast as a national laughingstock with such pronouncements as blaming the catastrophic earthquake and subsequent misery on the legend of a Satanic pact made in the beleaguered island's early history. 
Sometimes, it is far less of a laughing matter. For example, The Santa Clara chapter of the Moral Majority created a stir with its leader called for the death penalty against homosexuals. While intolerance become more and more of a theme within the politically active Christian groups, homosexuality and abortion are two perennial issues that seem to preoccupy them most. 
Most notably, gay groups were concerned when Falwell attempted to link AIDS pandemic to LGBT issues he stated, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Perhaps this attitude by a politically-powerful religious figure, they argued, explained Reagan's reluctance to confront, to even discuss the then-developing AIDS crisis, leading to inaction that resulted in greater public catastrophe.  
Other subsequent statements by Falwell would later divide the nation during its most difficult hours:
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Falwell said on Pat Robertson's The 700 Club, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" Falwell further stated that the attacks were "probably deserved..."
Coinciding with the rise of the religious wing of the Republican Party The phrase "family values" first entered the political lexicon in the 1976 Republican platform and was to become a frequently used mantra. However, the high-minded moralism and advocacy of family values also subjected the Republican party to close examination. Eventually this type of rhetoric would backfire and lead to a higher than average number of humiliating scandals among its ranks. From Mark Foley "sexting" congressional pages and Sen. Larry Craig's "wide stance" to Nevada Sen. John Ensign's affair with a former campaign staffer who is married to one of his legislative aides. Apparently, the Republicans themselves could not measure up to the standards their Christian supporters had demanded for the rest of the country. Caught up in their own hypocrisy, the Republican party has earned the mistrust of voters and the amused appreciation of late night talk show hosts.

The Wreckage Left Behind
Damage caused by the Christian political groups is not limited to the Republican party. Their support proved instrumental in the FCC repeal of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan administration. Mark Fowler, the FCC chairman successfully eliminated what he and others saw as government interference and an impediment to free speech and appealed directly to the National Religious Broadcasters for their support. As Devin notes:
Working in tandem with their pocketed politicians, the Christian right would rejoice at the FCC's repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which gave rise to a slew of unchecked right-wing programs that hawked the myth of a vast "liberal media", even as markets narrowed and became dominated by a handful of corporations. 
As important as the wholesale destruction of the public forum for intelligent debate, the rise of the Christian Right has been particularly harmful to the long-standing fundamental concept of the separation of Church and State.  
Frederick Clarkson, author of the book, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, explains how this battle for the soul of the nation has come full circle since Kennedy's struggle to define himself as a secular president with private religious beliefs. 
"The question of separation of church and state has been a defining issue for Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Both have given speeches in Texas to echo and answer John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 campaign speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that has been the model for how pols balance religion and public life for a generation. Both embraced the rhetoric of the religious right.
“Rick Santorum has made denunciation of Kennedy’s statement ‘I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute’ — a centerpiece of his campaign.
“When Santorum came to the Boston area last year, he denounced Kennedy before a Catholic audience. He blamed Kennedy for the alleged secularization of public life, calling Kennedy’s statement “radical” and that it has done ‘great damage.’
“Romney as a Mormon faced a similar obstacle to his candidacy that Kennedy faced in 1960. In his Texas speech in 2007 he sought to turn secularism into a bogeyman: ‘In recent years,’ he declared, ‘the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. … It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism.'

Santorum's history lesson is more than inaccurate or misleading: it is, as any scholar would tell you, an outright lie. In fact, the concept of separation of Church and State does not originate with Justice Hugo Black but with the writer of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, he writes:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.]
Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Still there is something  sadly ironic about the idea of Catholic Rick Santorum attempting to portray Catholic  John Kennedy for his secularist view of politics and for his adherence to the tradition of separation of Church and State.

Something of a Quandary
In some respects, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann represent the last gasp of the Christian Right. Its insatiable  preoccupation with gay marriage, right to life and other so-called value issues are beginning more and more to take a backseat to the economy and unemployment. Many of its views are seen by moderate voters as extreme, intolerant and painfully out of touch with the real world. And there's another problem.

Despite initially having a large selection to choose from, the Evangelicals have suddenly, unexpectedly found themselves in something of a quandary. All of the potential Republican candidates have made their customary appeals and yet, none of them seem able to satisfy both the conservative Christian leaders and political strategists. 
From a purely political point of view, their overall detachment from the realities of consensus politics have led them to throw their weight behind essentially un-electable candidates like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. With such division amongst its own members, there is now the very real possibility that the Christian Right Wing is about to lose its power base. The only viable choice, Mitt Romney, or moderate Jon Huntsman seem unacceptable to the majority of conservative religious leaders. And the time to make up their minds is quickly running out. 

The impossible demands of the evangelical movement coupled with the strident denunciation of right wing media organizations like Fox News appear to have damaged the Republican party beyond repair, threatening to make  the GOP the constant runner-up in a two-party political system.


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