The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not likely to fade into the woodwork anytime soon, but while we’re in the midst of l’affaire Wright and its toll on Barack Obama, it is worth considering another unsettling lesson in all of this: That for all the talk of closing the “God gap,” episodes like this one–and battles over a Catholic’s worthiness to receive communion or whether a Mormon should be elected president–show that no candidate in his or her right mind would want to close the “religion gap.”
By “religion gap” I mean the (politically) safe distance between a candidate and a religious tradition–a body of believers, a community of truth that can call you on your mistakes, or perceived mistakes. Throughout American history presidents have benefited most when they have maintained the greatest distance from a specific religious tradition. (Steve Waldman can elaborate or dispute this point more authoritatively.) Think of the Deists among the Founding Fathers, or Abraham Lincoln, who is both a god of sorts in the pantheon of our civil religion yet a hero to many atheists. Who recalls any president’s religious affiliation? It was usually a generic, non-threatening mainline Protestantism, but even the one Quaker president (Nixon) isn’t remembered as such.
Of course everyone knows that JFK was Catholic, and that he, like every Catholic candidate since, has had to contend with that. Same with Mitt Romney, who faced absurd and often scurrilous criticism because of his religion (though he did not respond as thoughtfully or courageously as JFK or Obama). George W. Bush learned the value of being “spiritual but not religious,” and could sidle up to the Methodists when it suited him–such as when he wanted his library and think tank built at SMU. But the uproar against Bush’s library (including calls to consider excommunicating him–how Catholic!) reinforced the wisdom of branding himself as a non-denominational “follower of Christ,” as one biographer says is the president’s preferred label. He is embraced by evangelicals as a born again Christian, but he has no congregation, no church, and no denomination. He is certainly more devout than Ronald Reagan–a spiritual master of appearing religious without being so–but not much more of a churchgoer, preferring prayer time and bible studies with friends at Camp David.
Hillary Clinton is a quick study as well. Raised in the United Methodist Church, when she came to Washington in 1992 Clinton began hanging out with a rather odd group of largely conservative evangelicals known as The Family (not The Family of cult infamy) which is also known by the Grisham-esque name of The Fellowship. It certainly has its own baggage, though no one would never speak about it publicly as The Fellowship is a very secretive group. The first good exploration of this group was in Mother Jones last September, though there have been some follow-ups. The beauty of The Fellowship is that it doesn’t impose any difficult or embarassing burdens of history or tradition or leadership on Clinton, as does, say, Catholicism, Mormonism, or even the UCC congregationalism of Barack Obama (and Jeremiah Wright, the denomination’s unelected pontiff).
That freedom from religion has left Clinton at liberty to criticize Obama on his religion without herself being held to any similar standards. She told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (in a carefully-targeted interview with her old right-wing nemesis) that Wright ”would not have been my pastor…You don’t choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend.” Perhaps she also chose her race and upbringing? She certianly hasn’t chosen a church. And no one cites the fact that the pastors in the Methodist churches she has attended (such as Foundry near the White House) defended Wright.
Nor would Clinton even engage a question last month–as she was trumepting her small-town bona fides as a churchgoing Annie Oakley–as to when she had actually attended church, or where. Whether she goes to church, she said, “is not a relevant question in this debate” over Barack Obama’s comments on small town Americans. “We can answer that some other time,” Clinton said. (Now would be good.)
Similarly, when Dan Burke of RNS tried to pin her down on the Methodist Church’s upcoming debate (redux) on gay clergy, Hillary punted, probably wisely.
Q: Your church, the United Methodist Church, is getting ready to meet later this month. One of the issues they will address is whether to allow gay and lesbian clergy. Would you like to see gay and lesbian clergy who are in committed same-sex relationships in the United Methodist Church?
A: I really have not been able to focus on what the church will be debating at its upcoming conference, and it’s obviously a very difficult decision and I am going to wait and follow and watch and not express an opinion or assert my views into the process.
Q: So do you have an opinion on gay clergy?
A: I just want to follow the debate. I have not had time to think through all the points that will be made and want to give a chance for the conference to have a full and thorough debate on the matter.
Well, that’s politic, and wise, and in line with what the Clintons did re gays in the military. But the point is that Obama and others who publicly declare themselves part of a religious community and tradition, who practice a religion as well as nurturing a spirituality, face a more difficult political road than those with a free-range faith that can sound awesome in stump speeches but has blessed little baggage when it comes to reconciling one’s faith and one’s public actions.
As a Catholic, and a convert to that long and messy and saintly church history, I appreciate (as if you couldn’t tell) a believer who embraces a community of faith, a candidate who has to contend with the tensions and ambiguities and scandals and egotistical leaders (who just may be speaking the truth to power even as they lust for the spotlight). Because if the difficuties of an Obama or a Romney or a Giuliani can make them look uncomfortable or hypocritical or just downright silly–and can make their churches look the same way–then their struggles are really those of every serious believer trying to reconcile their conscience and faith and personal wishes with the truths and doctrines and communal requirements of a religious tradition.