Talking about Politics and Religion

Religion and politics are the two topics a genteel person is not supposed to discuss with company. I assume that’s because we usually have strong opinions on both of these topics and a civilized discussion can rapidly disintegrate into an all-out war, with normally well-mannered guests popping up from behind the sofas to lob verbal grenades at one another.

However, an article on CNN’s website caught my attention—and it deals with both religion and politics:

According to a poll released [last week] by the Public [Religion] Research Institute and Religion News Service, most Americans (56%) say it is somewhat or very important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs.

I have to agree. I want my president to have the fear of God deep down in his or her soul! However, the news report goes on to say:

Many Americans do not know, however, just what those beliefs are, even concerning the sitting president.

I admit, deciphering Obama’s faith takes some work. Rumors abound, and most of us have no access to the original sources required to form a firm conclusion. In any case, I don’t want to be sidetracked here. (If you want some extra reading, try this article by Daniel Pipes from January 7, 2008, and this article in the Washington Post.)

What caught my attention in the CNN article was the finding that, even though  most people want a president with “strong religious beliefs,” many don’t seem to care about the details. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you’re sincere.

So, what part of “strong belief” matters? If a person strongly believes in the thousands of Hindu gods, will most voters find that acceptable? What if they’re Buddhist, or Wiccan?

As this is still a nominally Christian country, I have to assume that most people prefer a president who claims to be Christian (although, since 18% of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, and 40% don’t know what religion he is, I might be wrong about that). In general, we tend to vote for people who believe as we do, including in matters of faith.

I am just (barely) old enough to remember the talking heads on TV discussing the fact that President Kennedy was a Catholic. People were worried that he’d defer to the pope in making decisions about our nation. Looking back, those fears were groundless,. Now the whole issue has resurfaced with Mitt Romney, the Mormon—except that only 40% of people know that he’s a Mormon.

Several years ago, Pete was in the Middle East for a series of meetings with (mostly underground) church leaders from that region. At one point he found himself in a vigorous discussion with a local pastor who emphatically declared that the only reason people go into politics is for money and/or power. Rather than being public servants, this pastor insisted, all government officials are self-serving; the professed faith of a political leader has absolutely no bearing on his actions in office. Would you agree?

With an election year coming up, we’re being bombarded by an endless stream of rhetoric, all aimed at convincing us to vote for this or that candidate. There are dozens of important issues, ranging from abortion to the environment and the war on terror to the economy. With so much to consider, how much importance will you give to a candidate’s stated religion? Does their faith matter? And if so, how close do their beliefs need to be your to own before you’ll vote for them?

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