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TEXAS FAITH: Is there too much "God talk" in politics?


The following ran on the March 27, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Theology Professor William Lawrence and Political Scientist Matthew Wilson provided expertise for this story.

April 9, 2012

By William McKenzie

Two weeks ago, Wayne Slater posed a question about how much of a candidate's religious views the public is entitled to know. This week, let's take a different look at this issue.

A new Pew Forum in Religion & Public Life survey shows that voters across the political spectrum are growing tired of hearing politicians talk so much about religion. The survey shows that almost 40 percent of the respondents are weary of hearing so much talk about faith. That figure represents a turn-around from recent years, including only two years ago, when polling data showed that voters thought candidates talked too little about their faith.

Not now. Democrats, Republicans and independents all show a growing distaste for so much talk about religion. Democrats scored the highest, followed by independents and then Republicans.

There are exceptions. White and black evangelicals are more comfortable with religion being a big part of the political debate than most other traditions.

But this data represents a serious shift from the past. In 2001, for example, only 14 percent of independents thought there was too much talk about religion. Today, that number is 42 percent. (You can read more about historic trends in this link.)

So, here's the question for this week, and it is a two-part one:

Why do you think Americans are expressing a rising discomfort with the role of religion in national affairs?

Do you consider this a dangerous trend?...

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University'

There is a curious confusion in America today about the role of religion in public life. It is exemplified by the approaches that the three most prominent Republican candidates for the presidency have taken with regard to their own religious views.

Mr. Santorum, for example, identifies himself publicly as a devout Roman Catholic, but he conducts himself publicly as if he were an evangelical Protestant. His public positions are more consistent with those of conservative Protestants than with those of his own church. He is outspoken in his opposition to contraception, to sexual activity other than between a man and a women within the bonds of marriage, and to abortion. But he is silent on the major social issues that are at the center of Roman Catholic moral theology, such as capital punishment. He seems poised, should he be elected president, to impose his moral values on the American society the way conservative Protestants imposed Prohibition on Americans early in the twentieth century. Is he truly a Roman Catholic or is he actually just another evangelical Protestant?

Mr. Romney barely acknowledges in public that he is a Mormon, and he seems eager to conceal the role that this religion has played in his life. For example, it was only when -- as a result of public pressure -- he released his income tax information that Americans learned he actually does practice tithing his enormous personal income by giving ten percent of it to the Mormon church. He rarely, if ever, acknowledges the formative period in his youth when he served two years as a missionary in France on behalf of his faith, even learning to speak French fluently. What appears to be tremendously important to him in his personal life is something that he declines to mention. He clearly is a Mormon. Why does he refuse to acknowledge it?

Dr. Gingrich openly talks about his current religious affiliation as a Roman Catholic, but seems silent about previous religious affiliations. As a result, his critics are left to devise their own understandings of his personal life and values, including whether he has changed religion each time he got divorced and remarried. He openly accuses the Obama administration of conducting a war on the Roman Catholic Church, but it is unclear whether this flawed accusation is offered as a matter of spiritual conviction, constitutional principle, or political contrivance. He is now Catholic, but is it really a definitive dimension of his character?

In short, I think there is rising discomfort with the role of religion in national affairs because these candidates have been dishonest and disingenuous about the role of religion in their personal lives. They are either lying, or they are withholding the truth, or they do not know what they actually believe. Americans are confused by all this. And that makes us uncomfortable with the religious talk....

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

Two things in particular are worth noting from these data.

First, as the question suggests, an increasing number of Americans feel that there is too much discussion of religion in our national political life. This is an important trend that merits discussion.

At the same time, however, it is worth noting that, despite religion's increased prominence in our political discourse, more than 60% of Americans do NOT feel that politicians are discussing it too much. What this points to, I believe, is a real desire on the part of the electorate to know why politicians do what they do and take the positions that they take.

For most people, religious faith will be an important part of answering those questions. Many voters want to be reassured that candidates have a moral compass, that their actions stem from something other than crass political opportunism and a will to power. A candidate who can speak compellingly about his or her faith, and who can connect it in a coherent way to policy stances (as President Obama recently sought to do with regard to taxes), provides such a reassurance --especially if that faith seems to play a meaningful role in the candidate's own personal life. In choosing a president, we are electing not just a set of issue positions or a technocratic CEO, but a multi-dimensional human being who will be the embodiment of the nation (recall that our president is not just head of government, but head of state). It is only natural that most voters would want some insight into that person's core convictions and most fundamental beliefs.

At the same time, the growing minority of Americans who are disenchanted with religious discussion in politics may be reacting negatively to the cynical way in which some candidates have used "God talk." It is easy to be turned off by a candidate whose application of religious values and rhetoric seems selective, opportunistic, and artificial, rather than stemming organically and consistently from who he is.

The use of religious language as a mere rhetorical flourish, or as a "dog whistle" to send coded messages to certain constituencies, cheapens the faith and turns off a good many genuine, thoughtful believers. We would expect the truly secular, basically agnostic crowd to deplore religious discussions in politics. They are the 14% who thought there was too much religious discussion ten years ago. That almost 40% now feel this way, however, suggests that many people of faith have themselves become uncomfortable with the nature of our public religious discourse.

Much of that discourse is, to be sure, superficial, opportunistic, and ultimately unproductive. I would hope, though, that people of faith would not retreat from the idea of religious engagement with the social and political world and accept a complete privatization of faith simply because some politicians have misused religious themes. The need for faith to be publicly engaged and socially transformative is too great to allow this to happen....