It's a presidential campaign like no other. The candidates have been falling all over each other in their rush to declare the depth and sincerity of their religious faith. The pundits have been just as eager to raise questions that seem obvious and important: Should we let religious beliefs influence the making of law and public policy? If so, in what way and to what extent? Those questions, however, assume that candidates bring the subject of faith into the political arena largely to justify -- or turn up the heat under -- their policy positions. In fact, faith talk often has little to do with candidates' stands on the issues. There's something else going on here.
Look at the TV ad that brought Mike Huckabee out of obscurity in Iowa, the one that identified him as a "Christian Leader" who proclaims: "Faith doesn't just influence me. It really defines me." That ad did indeed mention a couple of actual political issues -- the usual suspects, abortion and gay marriage -- but only in passing. Then Huckabee followed up with a red sweater-themed Christmas ad that actively encouraged voters to ignore the issues. We're all tired of politics, the kindly pastor indicated. Let's just drop all the policy stuff and talk about Christmas -- and Christ.
Ads like his aren't meant to argue policy. They aim to create an image -- in this case, of a good Christian with a steady moral compass who sticks to his principles. At a deeper level, faith-talk ads work hard to turn the candidate -- whatever candidate -- into a bulwark of solidity, a symbol of certainty; their goal is to offer assurance that the basic rules for living remain fixed, objective truths, as true as religion.
In a time when the world seems like a shaky place -- whether you have a child in Iraq, a mortgage you may not be able to meet, a pension threatening to head south, a job evaporating under you, a loved one battling drug or alcohol addiction, an ex who just came out as gay or born-again, or a president you just can't trust -- you may begin to wonder whether there is any moral order in the universe. Are the very foundations of society so shaky that they might not hold up for long? Words about faith -- nearly any words -- speak reassuringly to such fears, which haunt millions of Americans.
These fears and the religious responses to them have been a key to the political success of the religious right in recent decades. Randall Balmer, a leading scholar of evangelical Christianity, points out that it's offered not so much "issues" to mobilize around as "an unambiguous morality in an age of moral and ethical uncertainty."
Mitt Romney was courting the evangelical-swinging-toward-Huckabee vote when he, too, went out of his way to link religion with moral absolutes in his big Iowa speech on faith. Our "common creed of moral convictions... the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet" turned out, utterly unsurprisingly, to be none other than religious soil: "We believe that every single human being is a child of God... liberty is a gift of God." No doubts allowed here.
American politicians have regularly wielded religious language and symbolism in their moments of need, and such faith talk has always helped provide a sense of moral certainty in a shape-shifting world. But in the better years of the previous century, candidates used religion mostly as an adjunct to the real meat of the political process, a tool to whip up support for policies.
How times have changed. Think of it, perhaps, as a way to measure the powerful sense of unsettledness that has taken a firm hold on American society. Candidates increasingly keep their talk about religion separate from specific campaign issues. They promote faith as something important and valuable in and of itself in the election process. They invariably avow the deep roots of their religious faith and link it not with issues, but with certitude itself.
Sometimes it seems that Democrats do this with even more grim regularity than Republicans. John Edwards, for example, reassured the nation that "the hand of God today is in every step of what happens with me and every human being that exists on this planet." In the same forum, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that she "had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought. And that's all one can expect or hope for."
When religious language enters the political arena in this way, as an end in itself, it always sends the same symbolic message: Yes, Virginia (or Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina) there are absolute values, universal truths that can never change. You are not adrift in a sea of moral chaos. Elect me and you're sure to have a fixed mooring to hold you and your community fast forever.
That message does its work in cultural depths that arguments about the separation of church and state can never touch. Even if the candidates themselves don't always understand what their words are doing, this is the biggest, most overlooked piece in today's faith and politics puzzle -- and once you start looking for it, you find it nearly everywhere on the political landscape.
The Threat to Democracy
So, when it comes to religion and politics, here's the most critical question: Should we turn the political arena into a stage to dramatize our quest for moral certainty? The simple answer is no -- for lots of reasons.
For starters, it's a direct threat to democracy. The essence of our system is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don't discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, and therefore to change. In a democracy, there should be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view -- and to change his or her mind. It's a process whose outcome should never be predictable, a process without end. A claim to absolute truth -- any absolute truth -- stops that process.
For those of us who see the political arena as the place where the whole community gathers to work for a better world, it's even more important to insist that politics must be about large-scale change. The politics of moral absolutes sends just the opposite message: Don't worry, whatever small changes are necessary, it's only in order to resist the fundamental crumbling that frightens so many. Nothing really important can ever change.
Many liberals and progressives hear that profoundly conservative message even when it's hidden beneath all the reasonable arguments about church and state. That's one big reason they are often so quick to sound a shrill alarm at every sign of faith-based politics.
They also know how easy it is to go from "there is a fixed truth" to "I have that fixed truth." And they've seen that the fixed truth in question is all too often about personal behaviors that ought to be matters of free choice in a democracy.
Which brings us to the next danger: Words alone are rarely enough to reassure the uncertain. In fact, the more people rely on faith talk to pursue certainty, the more they may actually reinforce both anxiety and uncertainty. It's a small step indeed to move beyond the issue of individual self-control to controlling others through the passage of laws.
Campaigns to put the government's hands on our bodies are not usually missionary efforts meant to make us accept someone else's religion. They are much more often campaigns to stage symbolic dramas about self-control and moral reassurance.
Controlling the Passions
American culture has always put a spotlight on the question: Can you control your impulses and desires -- especially sexual desires -- enough to live up to the moral rules? As historian of religion John F. Wilson tells us, the quest for surety has typically focused on a "control of self" that "through discipline" finally becomes self-control. In the 2008 presidential campaign, this still remains true. Listen, for example, to Barack Obama: "My Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance can help fortify... a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy."
Mitt Romney fit snugly into the same mold. He started his widely-heralded statement on religion by talking about a time when "our nation faced its greatest peril," a threat to "the survival of a free land." Was he talking about terrorism? No. He immediately went on to warn that the real danger comes from "human passions unbridled." Only morality and religion can do the necessary bridling, he argued, quoting John Adams to make his case: "Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people" -- in other words, people who can control themselves. That's why "freedom requires religion."
All too often, though, the faith-talk view of freedom ends up taking away freedom. When Romney said he'd be "delighted" to sign "a federal ban on all abortions," only a minority of Americans approved of that position (if we can believe the polls), but it was a sizeable minority. For them, fear of unbridled passion is stronger than any commitment to personal freedom.
In the end, it may be mostly their own passions that they fear. But since the effort to control oneself is frustrating, it can easily turn into a quest for "control over other selves," to quote historian Wilson again, "with essentially bipolar frameworks for conceiving of the world: good versus bad, us versus them" -- "them" being liberals, secular humanists, wild kids, or whatever label the moment calls for.
The upholders of virtue want to convince each other that their values are absolutely true. So they stick together and stand firm against those who walk in error. As Romney put it, "Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me."
That's the main dynamic driving the movements to ban abortion and gay marriage. But they're just the latest in a long line of such movements, including those aimed at prohibiting or restricting alcohol, drugs, gambling, birth control, crime, and other behaviors that are, in a given period, styled as immoral.
Since it's always about getting "them" to control their passions, the target is usually personal behavior. But it doesn't have to be. Just about any law or policy can become a symbol of eternal moral truth -- even foreign policy, one area where liberals, embarked on their own faith-talk campaigns, are more likely to join conservatives.
The bipartisan war on terror has, for instance, been a symbolic drama of "us versus them," acting out a tale of moral truth. Rudolph Giuliani made the connection clear shortly after the 9/11 attack when he went to the United Nations to whip up support for that "war." "The era of moral relativism... must end," he demanded. "Moral relativism does not have a place in this discussion and debate."
Nor does it have a place in the current campaign debate about foreign policy. Candidate Huckabee, for example, has no hesitation about linking war abroad to the state of morality here at home. He wants to continue fighting in Iraq, he says, because "our way of life, our economic and moral strength, our civilization is at stake... I am determined to look this evil in the eye, confront it, defeat it." As his anti-gay marriage statement asks, "What's the point of keeping the terrorists at bay in the Middle East, if we can't keep decline and decadence at bay here at home?"
On the liberal side, the theme is more muted but still there. Barack Obama, for instance, has affirmed that the U.S. must "lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good. I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth." Apparently that's why we need to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq indefinitely. Clinton calls for "a bipartisan consensus to ensure our interests, increase our security and advance our values," acting out "our deeply-held desire to remake the world as it ought to be." Apparently that's why, in her words, "we cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran."
When words and policies become symbols of moral absolutes, they are usually about preventing some "evil" deed or turning things back to the way they (supposedly) used to be. So they are likely to have a conservative impact, even when they come from liberals.
The Future of Faith Talk
In itself, faith in politics poses no great danger to democracy as long as the debates are really about policies -- and religious values are translated into political values, articulated in ways that can be rationally debated by people who don't share them. The challenge is not to get religion out of politics. It's to get the quest for certitude out of politics.
The first step is to ask why that quest seems increasingly central to our politics today. It's not simply because a right-wing cabal wants to impose its religion on us. The cabal exists, but it's not powerful enough to shape the political scene on its own. That power lies with millions of voters across the political spectrum. Candidates talk about faith because they want to win votes.
Voters reward faith talk because they want candidates to offer them symbols of immutable moral order. The root of the problem lies in the underlying insecurities of voters, in a sense of powerlessness that makes change seem so frightening, and control -- especially of others -- so necessary.
The only way to alter that condition is to transform our society so that voters will feel empowered enough to take the risks, and tolerate the freedom that democracy requires. That would be genuine change. It's a political problem with a political solution. Until that solution begins to emerge, there is no way to take the conservative symbolic message of faith talk out of American politics.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.
Copyright 2008 Ira Chernus