Don’t look now, but there are only 12 days to go before this historic presidential election and one of the potentially most explosive and divisive issues has yet to become a factor. I am talking, of course, about the issue of religion–an issue when mixed with politics often becomes a toxic blend.
Consider only four years ago, when both Romney and Obama were first introduced to the American public as presidential candidates. In addition to the stubborn, vicious and utterly baseless rumors that Obama was secretly a Muslim, there was the controversy over his then pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. When the videos of Wright condemning the history of white privilege in the United States went viral, Obama’s church’s variant of Black Liberation Theology came under assault. By virtue of his religion, Obama was portrayed as an other, outside the American mainstream, and where he and his family chose to worship became a political liability.
Likewise with Romney, who never survived the Republican primary season where a conservative Evangelical base remained deeply suspicious of his Mormon faith. Early during that nomination fight, both Romney and the former Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee emerged as the main challengers to the presumed frontrunner and eventual nominee John McCain. While Romney earned widespread support from fiscal conservatives, Huckabee made frequent veiled references to religion, including his infamous Christmas commercial in which the image of a white cross formed from a bookcase in the background sent the clear message to viewers in Iowa and elsewhere of his evangelical bona fides and Romney’s otherness as a Mormon.
It was during that election cycle four years ago that both Obama and Romney felt compelled to give major speeches explaining their religion to the American public. Both speeches were well-considered and well-received. Both took John F. Kennedy’s speech from nearly fifty years prior as their template, but still with important differences. Kennedy was the nation’s first, and still only, Roman Catholic president (or put differently JFK is still the one and only non-Protestant to occupy the White House). Whereas Kennedy articulated a strict secularist stance, advocating for an unbreachable wall of separation between church and state, both Obama and Romney reflected a changed mood about the proper role of religion within the American public. While both celebrated the United States historical commitment to religious liberty, they also testified to the important role faith plays in their own personal lives and how their respective faiths shape their views of public service and policy.
Obama acknowledged how the issue of race further complicates or inflames an already potentially incendiary mix of religion and politics. He expressed gratitude to his former pastor and spoke to the righteous indignation that still lingered within much of the African American community over the legacy of racism and discrimination. But in the end, he distanced himself from Wright, and called for mutual understanding, sympathy, and healing.
Romney used his speech to explain the shared beliefs, traditions and values between his Mormon faith and the more mainstream, or at least more familiar, variants of Christianity. In so doing, he sought to defuse the issue of his religious difference. At the same time, he took direct aim at the secularist stance laid out by Kennedy, making the argument that secularism too could function as a religious faith and, when adopted into legal culture, could also lead to exclusion and close-mindedness.
That was then. This is now. By all accounts, neither Obama nor Romney has changed his religious views. At the latest count, there are still 17% of registered voters who believe Obama is a Muslim and 22% who admit hesitancy in voting for a Mormon for President. Yet somehow religion has not become the explosive and deeply divisive issue it has been in the past. With all the partisan bickering and the mounting challenges we face, might this just be a sign that the religious liberty enshrined in our Constitution and fought for for both eminently practical and principled reasons by our founding fathers has finally become a reality?
Time will tell, of course. And there are still 12 days remaining in this race, after all. But as we wait and see–and maybe even hope and pray–I for one have been encouraged and stimulated by my discussions about these and related matters with my students in this semester’s “One Nation Under God?” class. It is a remarkable and deeply satisfying experience when the learning that takes place within the classroom matches and perhaps even helps to make sense of current affairs.