Does Your Politician Pass the Religious Test?

There might actually be politicians who are sincerely religious – think Jimmy Carter – but I wouldn’t trust the words of any of them when it comes to describing their religious faith and what it has to do with their stand on national issues.

They’re so successfully coached. If they’re really good at it, they know what religious language, metaphors, and allusions work.

And they know that getting elected requires the making of a brand, embodying an image they can appear to live in order to sell themselves. It means treating everything they do as advertising.

It’s the public relations industry at work. It’s the selling of a product.

And it’s as believable as most advertising that describes itself in terms of what the consultants tell them will move people to buy. In this climate politicians realize this, including current and previous presidential publicity teams.

Selling himself as a brand with a Pepsi-like logo and a short, catchy slogan, Obama’s ads actually won the best advertising awards for any marketing of the election year. His garnered the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads, and marketing-services vendors gathered in 2008 at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference, edging out runners-up Apple and to be named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008.

And a candidate’s religion is a part of the focus-group-tested advertising mix. Remember John McCain, who identified for a long-time as an Episcopalian, claiming in 2007, though un-baptized, to be a Baptist so that the right-wing religious base could lose their doubts about his religious credentials?

Though the Constitution’s only reference to religion is to forbid a religious test for government office, and though when a person becomes a politician we realize that their statements about their religion are overly-nuanced, professionally-orchestrated, public-relations-tested, and carefully staged, Americans still seem to want their leaders to convince them that they’re sincerely religious.

The previous president, no matter how little he personally knew about his own faith, the Bible, or anything religious, had so convinced the right-wing he was one of them that they hung on to him desperately, hoping he would validate their belief. No matter how he’d let them down, they desperately needed to believe he was one of their chosen, fundamentalist, pushers of their religion.

Religion is highly useful for politicians and others. It can be manipulated positively or negatively.

It’s most often used to support whatever it is – an idea, a position, an institution – that someone wants to promote by sanctifying it. That can be by finding Bible verses that seem to support what is a prejudice, choosing out of all of history the things to be considered “traditional values” while ignoring all else, or hiding behind a religious belief to save oneself from examining what it claims to promote.

By asserting the origins of something in the Divine, one doesn’t have to face the reality that it might be just a stupid idea someone holds onto that really ought to be given up.

Don’t hold me in any way responsible when I use it to push a political agenda. It’s not my self-rewarding prejudice. It’s God’s idea.

In a poll conducted in mid-July by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, 56 percent of Americans surveyed said it’s important for a presidential candidate to have “strong religious beliefs.” They claimed this was true whether or not those beliefs differed from their own.

Those who most agreed were white evangelicals at 73 percent and ethnic minority Christians at 74 percent. I assume these people can trust that their political choices are believable when they discuss their faiths.

The President’s religious stance, of course, has been part of a sustained attack by the right-wing including the religious right-wing. The poll indicated only one in three Americans identify Obama as a Christian, while 18 percent still think he’s a Muslim.

This is due to ignorance, of course. Just one in four Americans, including 44 percent of white evangelicals and 21 percent of ethnic minority Christians, could correctly identify Mitt Romney as a Mormon.

In fact, white evangelicals are the group most likely to say that they don’t know what Michele Bachmann’s beliefs are even though she attends a Baptist church. 51 percent did not know and only 35 percent said she had beliefs similar to them.

In not identifying the President as a Christian, there’s another element. It’s soothing to the religious and political right-wing who just doesn’t like Obama for a variety of other reasons to cling to the view that he’s not really a Christian, even if they don’t believe he’s a Muslim.

To believe that his more compassionate, approach to the poor and needy comes out of sayings of Jesus that the President actually quotes – “As you do to the least of these, you do to me.” – is to have to confront the idea that the right-wing Republican “let them eat cake,” destroy the safety net for the most vulnerable, could possibly be non-Christian.

That would be threatening. So, use religion to remove the threat. Justify your stand by refusing to believe Obama could be a Christian.

But then believe that those who are in agreement with your political stands must be very religious, that is, very religious in a right-wing Christian way. Republicans (70 percent) are more likely than Democrats (51 percent) to say strong religious beliefs are important, with those who identify with the Tea Party more likely to say it is “very” important.

And put your faith in what politicians tell you about the strength of their religious beliefs as if they aren’t salesmen selling a product because you have to do so. There would be no easy comfort in having to do the research into the candidates, their funders, and backgrounds, and thereby be high-information voters.

Better to believe God approves of these politicians, and that’s enough for me. Amen.

And that’s the way religion most often gets used in politics to sell its products.