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White House God 4

The Reagan and Bush era is called in Balmer’s book, God in the White House, “Listing Right.” I’m not sure about the personal faith of either GHW Bush or Ronald Reagan, but it appears to me that both of them were willing to play the card Jimmy Carter played so well:
The faith card.
Now: a sensitive topic for me, but one I’d like to learn from in conversation. How genuine do you think the faith card is for our political candidates? Avoid words like hypocrisy, jerk, disingenuous … and instead stick to some facts, appointments, decisions, etc.. What do you think? Do you think the entrance of religious rhetoric into the campaign, especially since Carter, has been good or bad?
Jimmy Carter announced he was a born-again Christian and, though I think he was then more born-again than he is now, his Christian commitments have always been to the front of his statements. He is now a moderate-to-liberal Southern Baptist. As we write this there are plans for the New Baptist Covenant surrounding Carter.
But what about Reagan and GHW Bush? Here are some of Balmer’s conclusions:
Reagan experienced a born-again conversion as a child at a Disciples of Christ church; went to a Disciples college (Eureka). These are credible faith elements of his journey to the Presidency. Reagan attracted the conservative evangelical vote in spite of his divorce and re-marriage (which today seems trivial compared to what Balmer had been the status quo — which in my own experience is about the time the evangelical movement became more tolerant of divorce and remarriage) and in spite of the fact that he and Nancy rarely attended church and in spite of the fact that Nancy consulted an astrologer.
Balmer is keen also to show that the Reagan’s own decisions, in spite of appointing some clear evangelicals (Koop, Watts), did not follow through on the expectations of the Religious Right. Balmer has some telling quotes from Paul Weyrich to this effect.
GHW Bush is known for having switched from campaigning against Reagan, where he differed both on abortion and on Reagan’s “voodoo politics,” to becoming his right-hand man as VP. Part of this switch involved Bush being more vocal about his faith. Bush surrounded himself with conservative evangelicals.
Balmer concludes this chp with a reflection on the need for a common enemy for a movement to gain strength — when the Iron Curtain collapsed there was the need to find a new enemy. Enter Clinton and Bush.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 12:53 am

Scot, is it Balmer or you that is calling it “the faith card?” Wording it that way makes it suspect from the get-go, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily fair to Carter, Reagan or Bush.
What also puzzled me was the conclusion that Jimmy Carter was “more born again” believer at one point than he is now. Could you explain what you mean by that? It doesn’t sound like you to quantitatively, or even qualitatively, judge someone else’s faith, so I must be missing something??

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posted January 31, 2008 at 12:56 am

Based on the data regarding the so-called “evangelical” impact on the GW election in ’04 it is simply hard to deny the political motivations for making faith such a central issue especially among democrats. They have been trying to “win” those votes since day 1 of all this mess.
Do I think it is genuine? To a degree. But the political wrapping has made the faith card become a poker hand in a game of politics. Once regulated through that conduit, it loses its genuineness and becomes something else.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 4:43 am

I wondered about that statement re: Carter’s faith as well, and wondered if you were using it more as a descriptive term about a type of Christianity, eg. he holds less to the “born again” model of faith, which tends to have certain theological baggage that goes with it. Or were you saying he is less “Christian” now than he was then. Not all Christians would describe themselves as “born again” simply because it implies a series of evangelical beliefs that they do not hold. To some extent this is because “born again” Christians exclude those who do hold certain theological tenets, that are not necessarily central Christian creeds.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 6:46 am

One aspect of this period cannot be overlooked: national demographics. During this period, the South and West were (and still are) growing rapidly. The open expression of the Christian faith in the South is a much more accepted practice than in other portions of the nation, such as in the Northeast. Carter’s faith related comments helped bring it into the open, but it was Reagan- the “Great Communicator”- that gave many of faith a powerful voice for their causes.
After Reagan, Bush 41 takes over, and has seen this expression of faith become more common inside the Washington beltway. Although having worked in and having represented voters in Texas, he had seen by many as more of a Northeastern “Country Club Republican”. However, as he entered the White House, he could be more comfortable expressing matters of faith, and had seen the growth of populations (and voter bases) in areas where that carried a lot of weight.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 7:13 am

It’s pretty easy to be cynical about statements of faith among candidates, because nearly everything they say is designed to market themselves to whatever demographic they think they need to capture.
I tend to respect and admire those who quietly affirm their faith when asked, and yet don’t go out of their way to be photographed with big leather Bibles that don’t look like they get any use.
I think it must be pretty challenging to be committed to serving Christ while trying to run for high profile elected office where the stakes are high, the tricks are dirty, and the behind the scenes deals, deceptions and carnage are legendary. It’s a dirty business with a lot at stake. People fight for those positions of power.
Most of us would like to see a person of strong character in high office for obvious reasons, but a mere statement of faith doesn’t carry much weight for me anymore. I’m much more concerned about the individual’s actual track record in their votes, their personal relationships, and their reputation with who work under them.

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Scot McKnight

posted January 31, 2008 at 7:33 am

Fair criticism and I accept it; I’m using “faith card” but I ask for a generous and neutral reading of it. When it becomes superficial and vote-motivated, it is negative; otherwise, genuine.
On Jimmy … I haven’t heard that kind of language from Carter is a long, long time — that’s what I mean. Mariam’s got what I mean right.

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Bob Brague

posted January 31, 2008 at 8:02 am

I think he was then more born-again than he is now.
Impossible. Your prejudices, upbringing, and/or theological training are showing. I would suggest that Carter doesn’t have to use that kind of language any more when the whole world knows he regularly teaches Sunday School in the Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains, Georgia, and is practically the face of Habitat for Humanity.

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Bob Brague

posted January 31, 2008 at 8:08 am

I guess mine are, too (prejudices, upbringing, and theological training, although I haven’t had any of the latter).

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Bill V.

posted January 31, 2008 at 8:53 am

Actually, I like the term “faith card”. I don’t have a problem with it. Now more to the point and to attempt to answer your question (“How genuine do you think the faith card is for our political candidates?).
Simply, I greet it with skepticism. Politicians of various flavors and grit, have invoked the faith card. Even Bill Clinton tried to do it. But it’s been real vogue since Reagan and Falwell. The Republicans have tried to co-opt the evangelical vote because they know it’s a force to be faced. even the Democrats know it but I think they clench their teeth any time they have to mention it.
Courting the evangel-vote I see as being a political stunt to get elected and that’s all. Once in office the evangelicals are marginalized and/or demonized. Huckabee is a great example of this. Watch the press toady up to him. Why? Because his policies embrace big-government, nanny-government (government is your momma), some socialist policy and ideology. The press can absolve him. But Huckabee plays the faith card and wants us to look the other way.
Oh my gosh! How could I forget? Remember Alan Keyes? Did Keyes play the faith card? I think not. Hardly any of the evangel-voters gave him the time of day.

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Keith Schooley

posted January 31, 2008 at 9:15 am

I think we need to distinguish more between a candidate playing a faith card (sincerely or insincerely), and a candidate having a faith card imposed from outside (willingly or unwillingly).
To my knowledge, in the post-Kennedy period, only Carter and GW Bush have made an issue of their own respective faith commitments; I have no reason to doubt either’s sincerity, even if it also played into their hands politically. Both, I think, are an object lesson on why faith commitment is not enough to elect a president on.
Reagan may have been the darling of the Religious Right, but they were latching on to his conservative principles much more than any personal profession of faith. In other words, he supported what they supported; that was much more important than his personal religious experience. This is what I mean by a faith card being imposed (willingly) from the outside.
By 1988, the Religious Right would have backed any Republican over any Democrat (something I believe Paul Weyrich complained about–the RR was losing its influence by being in the back pocket of the Republicans). GHWB was Reagan’s heir apparent, so he was their candidate. I don’t recall anything of substance ever being discussed about his personal faith. And while Clinton made his faith commitment public, I don’t think that many people voted for him primarily for that reason.
So I think a lot of the “playing the faith card” rhetoric is misplaced. It is also a mistake to look at the post-Kennedy period in isolation; faith and US politics have always been intertwined. Lincoln had to represent himself as much more orthodox than he truly was. And I once read a comparison between Reagan’s first inagural address and FD Roosevelt’s. Roosevelt’s had about ten times as much biblical language, imagery, and allusions than did Reagan’s–largely because the prevailing culture was much more religiously (specifically Christian) oriented in Roosevelt’s time than during the heyday of the Religious Right.
We tend to view the religious US influence on politics as a recent and dangerous trend, but that’s only in comparison to an artificially secular period in the wake of Kennedy and the social changes of the 60s.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 11:13 am

The problem is that these are people we don’t get to be in true community with when it comes to judging the fruit of their faith. All we have to go on are reported faith practices (such as worship attendance) and reported political work (such as voting records) and, if the politician has written publicly, their books.
I believe that it’s only speculation on our part if we say that so-and-so is a strong Christian (or any other faith). The tricky thing is that in the case of Christians, IF a politician has professed faith in Jesus Christ, do we have legitimate reason and/or credible evidence that they’re NOT Christians? Should we make public (or private) statements that denigrate a brother or sister in Christ? Do we deny that they’re fellow Christians?
Will we ever really know, short of eternity, if they’ve “practiced justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with their God”? I submit that since we have to largely rely on the media’s reporting to inform our opinions, we’re not going to get especially reliable “evidence” pro or con.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 11:34 am

Scot –
If you haven’t read it, an interesting book is David Kuo’s “Tempting Faith.”

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posted January 31, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Scot and others,
To the idea that Carter is heard speaking of his faith less now than he used to… I’m not sure what venues anyone hears him speak in at all these days, much less which of those would be places we’d expect to hear him talk of his faith, yet he doesn’t. But for those who have the time, I’d recommend listening to his interview on Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith (which, as it’s name implies, is certainly a venue where we would expect such talk, so I’m trying to get at the content of what he says more than the fact he’s saying it).

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Fred Peatross

posted January 31, 2008 at 12:10 pm

Dana Ames

posted January 31, 2008 at 12:44 pm

wrt Carter, the term “born-again Christian” was in widespread use in the 70’s and meant a particular thing: one had recognized one’s sin, through scripture reading or hearing preaching, come to believe that Jesus’ atonement was necessary and enough to free one from sin, and made a decision to accept that atonement and enter into a relationship with God, most often done by praying a certain kind of prayer. Even non-“born-again Christians” knew that.
I think Carter was trying to identify with a certain segment of the population (young, “religious”, not wealthy). He may have thought such a declaration would give him credibility with a wider spectrum of people. From what I have observed of Carter, he is a very smart man, but I don’t think he was trying to “play a card”. Carter told us several pointed and truthful things that we didn’t want to hear… I remember some people, including a lot of Christians, being irked that he would make his religious views that public, especially after Kennedy and the “Catholic question”. (I remember my parents being concerned that all the kerfluffle around Kennedy’s religion would result in some sort of persecution of Catholics.)
I agree with Drew#2 and Psalmist#11.

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tim atwater

posted January 31, 2008 at 1:14 pm

I still like Carter and consider him a genuine person of faith. I didn’t like major parts of his governance (hair-triggering the arms race prior to RR with the Cruise and Pershing missiles, folding his initially good human rights policies often if there was oil or strong strategic interests…) But he’s been good in retirement…
A friend was at Koinonia farn next door to Plains for a few years and shuttling back and forth between Georgia and Vermont and often attended Carter’s bibles studies, which were consistently substantive and well thought-through, he reports.
I will try to heed the word to not go negative on others… probably they all believe what they believe at the time… (and God know whatever that is… and i won’t presume to be too sure…)
Reading Christianity Today (“MegaChurch primaries” i think) last night, i noticed a former colleague working as a “faith consultant” to democrats now… and VT homeboy Howard Dean has figured out where Job is and hired a Pentecostal pastor as a chief policy wonk for the DP… oh my. Making up for lost time? or the Spirit works anywhere, everywhere…where there’s even the tiniest of tiny openings?
(God knows… i do not know… i try to hope for the best always…without expecting too much from anyone but God…)

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Bill V.

posted January 31, 2008 at 1:26 pm

What in the world is a “faith consultant”? I propose this: the person is a political consultant and strategist. Someone who can spin the “faith” language and image the right way for whoever is contracting him/her.
It’s making up for lost time in my opinion. It is also a less than noble try to play the “faith card.” But as the game goes, it has to be in any politicians play book especially when running for state and national office.
So where do our Islamic voters fall? Aren’t they part of the “faith” vote? Or is “faith” a euphemism for “evangelical Christian”?

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tim atwater

posted January 31, 2008 at 1:47 pm

straddling here..
just to clarify a bit what i said/and muddle it up a bit at the same time (plausible deniability? or just role confusion?)
the CT article i cited was in deed talking about ‘faith political consultants’… This is of course Old News in the Republican Party… and probably several years older phenomena w the Dems than CT makes out in its article…
In Fairness — my friend Mara, cited in the article is in my opionion, a very sincere person of faith, who also knows the world of politics…
My many questions about how faith does and should play out in the political realm are too messy and too extensive to summarize…
If it matters — i am trying to straddle a line between believing the best possible about all the players — and proper cynicism based on long experience…
between still having my own favorites (Obama this year, Dems and minor parties in a messy mix most years)– and not expecting any of them to actually do more than the precedents on all sides indicate is actually doable…
in other words whoever is in the white house does matter — but its never to be confused with the kingdom of God…
sorry if this is off point…

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Jeff Gissing

posted February 1, 2008 at 7:53 am

Isn’t Jim Wallis of Sojourners a faith consultant?

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posted February 1, 2008 at 8:08 am

I think that the “faith card” has been unkind to Mitt Romney. A significant part of faith is religious identity — which tends to define’s itself by “others” or a common perceived enemy.
Many ‘born again’ Christians are used to thinking of thir own faith as “true” and all the others as “false” … including Mormans and Jehova’s Witnesses.
It has stretched ‘born again’ Christians to find themselves making common cause on conservative moral issues with Catholics, Mormans and Conservative Jews… despite the fact that Romney has all the Conservative issues right … he cannot exactly find common ground with the ‘born agains’ … hence, his political difficulties.
I find it interesting that one of the urban legend type attacks against Obama has been precisely on the point of religion. I am speaking of the false email going around implying that he is an under-cover Muslim.
somehow faith needs to be moved from exclusive identity politics (us vs. them) to the level of inclusive moral guide (us loving and serving on behalf of everyone else).

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tim atwater

posted February 1, 2008 at 11:22 am

Josenmiami–good points…
i think that deconstructing culturally delimited use of the very biblical term ‘born again’ is quite necessary.
We must be born again, born anew, born from above.
And the marks of truly born again Christians are mostly the opposite of the culturally closed-doors circled wagons postures of the religious right. So we do need to challenge each other when we slip into culturally delimited usage. it only encourages the slip-slide into meaningless language.
Maybe we need to reconstruct the new testament language of maturation in Christ… that’s supposed to follow with born-again experience. Like insist on some evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5) and the beatitudes in praxis… whenever we hear the term born-again… ?

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