Not only is God a presence on the campaign trail, but Jesus Christ; and this is what raises progressive hackles. America is no longer a Christian country, they protest, and such explicit Christian references is an insult to Muslims, Hindus, and atheists. Many go so far as to suggest that invoking the name of Jesus Christ is a thinly-veiled slap at Islam and and far more than a spiritual invocation is a call to arms against the infidel.
The fact is, of course, that America still is a Christian country. Nearly 80 percent of Americans consider themselves Christians (Gallup 2014) and most others subscribe to the secular expressions of the faith. Compassion, moral rectitude, consideration for others, a respect for family, friendship, and a desire to lead exemplary lives of honesty, conviction, and purpose are not only Christian.
As importantly, most people of faith respect the beliefs of others. Few people challenge Judaism’s profound respect for the law or Islam’s piety, devotion, and absolute obedience to God. Those who understand Hinduism understand the similarity between John’s Gospel of logos and the teachings of the Rig Veda about the universality and ‘pre-existence’ of God. They also see the Hindu concept of ahimsa in Martin Luther King’s non-violence. Others look to Buddhism for insights on tolerance and the Middle Way.
Most people of faith are content to live within their religion’s configuration of God, look to him for redemption, salvation, or guidance; and only react militantly and aggressively when inflamed by the rhetoric of political leaders who use religion for their own secular ends.
In other words there is no reason why any invocation of Christianity per se should offend. Only when politicians attack a specific religion that one must pay attention. While there is no doubt that radical Islamists have distorted the teachings of their religion and used it as a foundation for their expansionist, amoral ends, the issue is not Islam itself but the reasons why so many Arabs and Africans have abandoned the peaceful, spiritual aspects of their faith.
As importantly it is no secret that America is one of the most religious countries on earth with a significant majority who not only profess religious faith but consider it the most important element in their lives. Christian evangelicals make up nearly 15 percent of the population and most are deeply conservative and see secularism and liberal policies as dangerous, corrosive, and damaging to them and to America.
Why under these conditions should any politician avoid religious references on the stump? Even if the invocation of Jesus Christ did indeed offend those of other religions, what political damage would that do? Better for Republican candidates to consolidate their religious bona fides with evangelicals than to ignore them.
Trust in American politicians and democratic institutions is at an all-time low; and it is no surprise that voters are looking for something more essential than the predictable bombast, unfulfilled promises, and blarney. Many of these voters willingly suspend their disbelief when voting for religious candidates (i.e. given politicians’ notorious insincerity and venality), but the fact remains that their support is real, proven, and predictable.
Whatever the reason – whether voters do indeed trust candidates who openly profess their religious faith; or whether the confluence of conservative politics and religiosity is so attractive they they tend not to disaggregate the two – religion is and will always be a political force in America.
Perhaps most importantly, voters may be shifting their priorities. Hillary Clinton is so mistrusted by both conservatives and liberals because she lacks principle and is an example of a politician on no mission except to get elected – an example of entitlement at its worse. Bernie Sanders is trusted because, despite his radical and improbable promises, he does have values. No one doubts that Bernie believes in democratic socialism not as an abstract principle or a means for staking out new political territory, but because he feels that income equality, social integration, and full participation of all Americans in society are important per se.
Ronald Reagan was one of America’s most popular Presidents not because of his mastery of the issues, nor for his intellect; but because of his principles. He believed that Communism was wrong, that the Soviet Union was not only a geopolitical enemy but an evil force in the world. He believed without question that big government was destroying individualism and enterprise; and that such individualism was the only way for secular progress and spiritual evolution.
It is doubtful that any of the current (2016) Republican candidates for President have the vision, insight, and principle of Reagan; and it is certain that most are posturing, invoking religion and moral principle as a means for electoral success. However even with all their sanctimony, they may be doing some good. Whatever their intentions, they are claiming moral integrity based on religious faith as the most important issue of the campaign.
Winston Churchill and FDR were great leaders because of their foundational principles. Churchill was one of the first world leaders to recognize Hitler’s and Stalin’s dangerous ambitions. He never hesitated in his call for the defeat of Nazi Germany:
Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
FDR came from a family of wealth and privilege, but was untiring in his efforts to help the poor. The Depression hurt him personally and never did his patrician upbringing keep him from empathizing with the poor, destitute, and marginalized.
The electoral cry for candidates who are grounded in religion is in many ways a stand-in for moral probity, personal values and principles. When voters hear invocation of religion on the stump, they are hoping for a return to inspired leadership – men and women who will lead on the basis of principle, regardless of its origin.
The progressive Left does not understand these sentiments. Trapped within the artificial paradigm of race, gender, ethnicity, and diversity, they prefer to expunge all references to Christianity because of their exclusive nature. No religion can be seen as better than any other. In their desire to remove religion from political discourse, they ignore its importance in most people’s lives. Removing all traces of it from secular affairs is myopic, misguided, and ultimately wrong.
Most Americans who have grown up with a profound respect the principles of the Enlightenment and Humanism, rail at the sanctimony of politicians. Their arrogance and self-importance are intolerable. Yet it is important for them to take a step back, and see them and their statements within a broader social, cultural, and historical context.
For better or worse, America is religious country, and a return to the fundamental values of religion – all religions – is a good thing.