I will never forget the answer that George W. Bush gave in an early presidential primary season debate – December 13, 1999 – when he was asked, ‘who is your favorite political philosopher’.
He looked into the camera and with a child-like demeanor, he said, “Jesus Christ, because he changed my life.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his answer.
Bush’s answer opens up the discussion of how religion and American politics are intertwined. As much as the government wants to separate church and state, American politics shows how differing political opinions influence religious decisions and differing religious confessions influence (or are used to validate) political values.
I am Canadian and I grew up in Canada. Most of the people who run for Prime Minister are Protestant or Roman Catholic. Many of them are religious and attend Sunday worship service. However, religion and politics do not mix up in Canada, where much political thought is influenced by its being an officially bilingual country. If a Prime Minister candidate talked about God on the campaign trail, Canadians will believe the candidate is strange or has become a little crazy. If a candidate ever did that, the candidate will certainly lose their opportunity at becoming the Prime Minister.
It is the opposite in American politics. The presidential candidates believe they have to often talk about God, refer to God, and how their God is viewed by their faith, and therefore in their politics. As the recent Vice Presidential debate between Joseph Biden and Paul Ryan demonstrated, this means they must even speak to the issue if their point is that their religion has no influence on their politics. Both Vice President Biden and Mr. Ryan are Catholic, and the two have very different views on the influence of faith and politics.
However, 2012’s election campaign has seen relatively little “God-Talk”. It is usually the conservative right who like to push the God-talk upon the candidates. They like to use “God-talk” to illustrate which candidate is “more” Christian than the other. Christianity or “God-talk” within the campaign trail has been frequently used by the parties to sway voters and to convince that one candidate is the better Christian than the other. Or even to paint the false picture that the other candidate isn’t even Christian at all. Much religious talk and some phony issues revolve around the character of the candidates. The ink and sound waves spilled over President Obama’s birthplace and Mr. Romney’s tax returns are less about substance than they are about whether or not the candidate is lying.
Mitt Romney has been shy to talk about God, but once in a while he goes off script and brings God back into the conversation.
He said, “I will not take God out of my heart, I will not take God out of the public square, and I will not take it out of the platform of my party.”
This is in reaction to the Democratic Party that had to argue to get God back into its platform at the convention.
However, Mr. Romney is still avoiding discussions of his own faith conviction and what it means to believe in God. Since Romney is a Mormon, a minority religion, possibly not even truly Christian, and he is having such a difficult time with that issue, the conservative right commentators are shying away from religion, God-talk and Christianity.
The presidential candidate who can sincerely and genuinely talk about God will win the voters, because regardless of their faith, an honest stance in the faith demonstrates a positive character. This worked well with Jimmy Carter. However, to use God and to use God’s name to sway voters to either candidate is simply manipulation. It puts voters off, because it is no longer a matter of personal conviction, it becomes a matter of “you must do what I believe.” This is poison, especially in social issues such as feminist matters and the environment.
Furthermore, having faith is does not merely mean ‘talking about God’ but is about ‘living out the gospel and showing God within our lives’. If a candidate cannot live out the faith, but just ‘talk about God’ it means nothing. “Faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Living out the gospel means obeying God’s commandment to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This includes taking care of the poor, the elderly, the widow, the distraught and the down-trodden. When a candidate merely “talks” about their faith without wanting to live out the gospel, it makes us wonder which God they believe in. We all know that actions speak louder than words.
As we reflect upon this election and who to vote for, we should remember that using the name of God to manipulate an election is general ‘politics’ and “character building”. It does not reliably reveal anything about the candidate’s beliefs or faith in God. This does remind us of a commandment, “Do not use the name of God in vain’ (Exodus 20:7). It comes down to “when you do it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”
Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim received her M.Div. from Knox College and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and is an Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program at Moravian Theological Seminary. She is the author of two books, The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology and The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology. Grace was recently ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and also blogs for 99 Brattle and at gracejisunkim.
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