Political candidates are giving God a rest

  • Article by: BILL MAXWELL , Tampa Bay Times
  • Updated: July 2, 2012 - 8:14 PM

I began to notice God's absence shortly after Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both bellicose Catholics, left the race for the White House.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry bows his head in prayer. The former GOP candidate often infused his Christianity into his failed presidential campaign.

Photo: Daniel Acker, New York Times

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If the guarded rhetoric of the 2012 presidential race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is an indication, the candidates are giving God a rest from the public spotlight.

I began to notice God's absence shortly after Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both bellicose Catholics, left the race for the White House.

What I intuited was the disappearance of what Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau refers to as "faith and values politicking" -- invoking the Almighty in speeches and appealing to the emotions of partisan audiences with select biblical allusions and personal examples of living as a true believer.

Berlinerblau, who also directs Georgetown's Program for Jewish Civilization and is the author of "Thumpin' It: The Use of the Bible in Today's Politics," wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the candidates' playbooks lack the religiosity of those of previous campaigns.

He points out that in 2008, for example, then-Illinois Sen. Obama shocked and angered liberal Democrats by promising that as president, he would keep George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and would make it a "critical part" of his administration. Obama was signaling to supporters, Berlinerblau writes, that the Democratic Party no longer should be the "Party of Secularism."

Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama's opponent, wooed Southern evangelicals. In one of his most poignant speeches, McCain pulled from his personal life, discussing how he experienced the power of faith during brutal treatment as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

"In the life of our country, faith serves the same ends that it can serve in the life of each believer, whatever creed we might profess," he said. "It sees us through life's trials. It instills humility, calling us to serve a cause greater than ourselves. At its best, faith reminds us of our common humanity and our essential equality by the measure that matters most." What a difference four years and an economic downturn make.

Obama and Romney so far have steered clear of scriptural narratives and appeals to faith and values. Berlinerblau refers to this approach as "deceptive silence" and cites three major reasons for it.

First, Romney, the GOP's presumptive nominee, is a Mormon. He is not a Protestant and certainly is not an evangelical Christian, a member of the GOP's most reliable voting bloc. As such, he is wary of emphasizing his faith and values bona fides and bringing too much attention to tenets of Mormonism out of synch with Protestant beliefs.

Strategically, Berlinerblau writes, Mormons and evangelicals long have been fierce competitors in efforts to save and recruit souls worldwide. What advantage would Romney gain by reminding the nation's army of evangelicals of this battle? By default, Obama has little if any reason to stress faith and values when Romney is not doing it.

The second reason for the silence is explained this way. On the president's side, even if he wants to invoke faith and values, he would risk disaster because, as Berlinerblau writes, the Democratic Party lacks a thoughtful and coherent faith and values platform for Obama to tout on the stump. Those sound bites just are not there. His staunch supporters in progressive denominations fail to raise tons of money and thus fail to guide long lines of believers to the voting booth.

"Coming out in favor of gay marriage, supporting immigration reform -- in theory these are policies that should galvanize significant swaths of the 'liberal faiths,' " Berlinerblau argues. "Yet the galvanizing has been restrained. This is part of the dilemma of the religious left in America and its inexplicably imperfect interface with the Democratic Party."

Third, Catholic bishops, who head the nation's largest denominational voting bloc, have taken on faith and values issues that traditionally have belonged to evangelicals. The bishops are painting Obama as the enemy of "religious freedom," openly attacking the president's views on issues such as gay marriage and contraception.

"This accounts, in part, for all of that religious silence on the campaign trail," Berlinerblau writes. "The walking-on-eggshells Romney camp can just sit back and have the bishops do the fulminating for them. ...

"The Obama folks, for their part, would be insane to inflame the church leaders any more than they already have. Their best hope is to sit tight and hope (and pray) that lay Catholics aren't listening to their leaders' views on contraception, gay marriage, etc."

The Supreme Court's favorable ruling for the Affordable Care Act will not lure Obama and Romney into the faith and values morass. After all, ultraconservative Catholic bishops and evangelicals already are on the attack.

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