The latest round of the political WrestleMania gotcha match, otherwise known as the presidential campaign, finds the members of the tag team trying to “out-faith” each other while simultaneously painting their eventual opponent as “anti-faith.”
They vow to protect the country from the consequences of a pervasive “attack on faith” by just about everybody except them and their listeners, most pointedly President Obama and those under his anti-American and anti-religious influence.
Losing traction in efforts to offer a competitive economic vision, they are offering a more basic level of emotional appeal in a contest that seems to be drawing a line in the sand with an invitation to “choose this day whom you will serve, … but as for me and my house ….” And all the people shout, “Amen!”
It should not surprise us that many people of genuine faith respond by embracing the vision enclosed in the invitation.
The words are familiar, the issues are easily identified, the truth is straightforward, and the concerns are near the heart of what people often fear in uncertain times.
For three decades now, the careful packaging of faith by the Religious Right has succeeded in drawing a good market share of adherents who have become highly sensitized and ready to defend the “true” faith against such attackers as liberalism, socialism, environmentalism and the separation of church and state.
Dialogue across this line in the sand has become difficult if not impossible as the journey of faith has become a competitive race to be won rather than a pilgrimage to share.
Many, of course, saw this coming a good while back.
In a 1981 Parade magazine article, Billy Graham is quoted as saying: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
What may not have been as evident then as now is that the wedding, or at least the engagement party, for that three-decade marriage had already occurred at a gathering of conservative Christian leaders in August 1980.
There, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, anointed by the architects of the mobilized fundamentalism of the Religious Right against their fellow Baptist President Carter, offered his part of the wedding vow: “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”
Four years later, President (and again candidate) Reagan would issue a more cautious perspective in an address to a Jewish audience:
“Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate.”
While Reagan may have been the first of several partners in this marriage, and while he may have moved beyond some of the union’s intentions, the marriage has lasted and produced many offspring.
The most obvious family trait in this growing heritage is a concept of faith that sees it as the embrace of certain propositions, ideas and positions without much provision for growth and change to meet new challenges and discoveries.
The roots of this trait are much deeper than the present generation, as we note the historical struggles of the early Christians, Galileo, Darwin, the defenses of racial segregation and the like.
Faithfulness is measured by a template of understanding that is clear and easy to apply.
On the other side of this “culture war” is a concept of faith that sees it as a commitment to bring a faith perspective and its values to the challenges of an ever-changing world.
Because it lives in and embraces the often ambiguous needs of the human family, this faith appears to many as wishy-washy and weak.
Because it does not join the passionate advocacy of certain issues championed by the other side, and may in fact disagree with those positions, it is accused of “attacking faith.”
Two rather different understandings of faith: one a vision and a perspective for finding our way through the wilderness of a future, and the other a defense of a map based on the turns of a road already traveled.
Can we find common ground? Probably not. At least not until the parties find a way to beat their swords into plowshares and respect what is sacred in each other’s experience.
Demonizing opponents is a rather strange expression of faith. If either side “wins” by the exclusion of the other, we all lose.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).