It is becoming increasingly difficult not feel a fair amount of pity for American Christians. Having the fortune of spending several weeks in the Carolinas with my family, perhaps the most striking thing to a visitor traveling through “God’s Country” is the sheer number of churches.
In one town, which was little more than a single extended road, I counted thirteen. In another, eight, including four on opposing corners from one another (I should also note that the overwhelming majority of these were Baptist or variants thereof).
It should go without saying then that despite advances made by secularism over the last few decades, large numbers of Americans remain strong in their religious roots. It is a belief system that runs so deep in the country that it has become all but unthinkable for a non-believer to make a serious push for public office.
As someone who is both a committed secularist and not particularly sympathetic to the evangelical persecution complex, I find it very odd to admit that I am beginning to feel sorry for them.
It is undeniable that the religious right has become a powerful political machine. The furor and conviction of its members is only rivalled by the depths of their pocketbooks and it is a fact that hasn’t been lost on either the Democrat or Republican leadership.
The problem, however, is that it is becoming increasingly more apparent that the honest believers in America have fallen victim to a great number of proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing, or in several cases outright crackpots. It has gone past the point of mere populism and vote pandering and has devolved into something a great deal more cruel and manipulative.
How else would you describe Governor Perry’s repeated and shameless “public days of prayer” in light of his two hundred and thirty four executions? It seems that for whatever problem ails the Lonestar State, prayer is the answer, something undermined all the more by Perry’s seeming ambivalence as to whether or not his prayers are actually answered. Whether heaven intervenes or not is of little importance as long as the publicity stunt manages to mobilize the “value voters.” After all, God moves in mysterious ways, right?
The problem for religious voters is that politicians seem to love Jesus in the same way rap stars love Jesus, that is, as long as he continues to make them lots and lots of money. Christianity may not be the latest, but it is by far the most dominant political fashion symbol.
As Bill Clinton found out after the Monica Lewinsky debacle, a little help from Billy Graham certainly helps smooth things over in the PR department. Likewise, for former president George W. Bush as long as you’re willing to say you’re Christian long enough and loud enough, very few people will take the time to examine whether or not you’re acting like one.
The list goes on of course, from Sarah Palin’s crackpot congregation in Alaska to the vapid and ugly things said by Obama’s former pastor Rev. Wright, it appears that the particulars of which church you go to and what it actually stands for are of no matterâ€¦well, as long as it isn’t a Mormon church.
This isn’t to say I doubt the sincerity of the faith of Barack Obama, or even (especially) Sarah Palin. Rather, the problem I’m beginning to see is that church attendance among American politicians has become something rather compulsory. It is less a matter of personal belief and more a matter of necessity, religion is the ticket to the big show, and without it you simply aren’t getting in.
The problem this has created is that, in the words of Senneca, religion is “(Considered) by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” For many established politicians, the religious voter is seen merely as a means to an end and as such both valued and held in contempt.
Statements of faith are thrown about loosely and freely without any real thought of consequence, and it has created a game in which the particularly cruel and manipulative are able to twist an entire group of voters around their finger with a couple passing comments. There is something that even I as a secularist find to be appalling and crass and banal about this commodification of religious belief and the shamelessness of those for whom statements of faith are little more than useful catchphrases.
The issue, however, is that those of us on this side of the aisle shouldn’t have to be the ones pointing this out. How much more offensive should it be to those who actually believe in the holiness of these texts to see them used in such a way? They are what Christ would call white-washed tombs, clean on the outside but inside full of death.
It should be the responsibility of the believer first to doubt and to question and to challenge those who would attempt to bring their faith into the political realm, if only to keep their own house clean. It should be unquestionable that the believer above anyone else would want to expose and remove such a corrosive practice from within their own ranks and yet it doesn’t seem to happen.
Perhaps they don’t want to know. Perhaps they would rather not deal with the scandal. I assure you that, in either case, the scandal is present whether they acknowledge it or not and unless action is taken from within, it will persist and grow until the last semblance of sincerity and integrity is gone.
It is in the hands of the “value voters” to vote not just for those who talk the talk, but who walk the walk. Perhaps then the name of Christ will go back to being something more than a buzz word.