With the Iowa caucuses just two short weeks away, the candidates are all scrambling against the clock to get their message out. And with Christmas as the backdrop, it seems that several of the candidates are trying to use the opportunity to outdo one another–to show the evangelical base in Iowa just what good Christians they are.
Mike Huckabee has most recently taken center stage after a surge in the polls. His quick wit and folksy manner have helped broaden his popularity beyond the evangelical community. But as the New York Times Magazine noted in a recent profile, this lulls many Americans into failing to realize just how conservative his religious views are. He was one of three Republican candidates at the time who acknowledged not believing in evolution at a debate in May and, according to the Times profile, “he considers liberalism to be a cancer on Christianity.” At the same time, Mitt Romney has been talking up (and distorting) his faith in order to make him more appealing to evangelical Christians who remain deeply suspicious of his Mormonism. (It was in that same Times profile that Huckabee implied that Mormons believe Jesus and the devil are brothers. He has since apologized.) At least John McCain has had the good grace to stop pandering to the evangelical base, as when he declared America a Christian nation.
What is troubling about these examples, besides their unseemliness, of course, is that they have turned faith into both a showpiece and a litmus test. In a thoughtful piece in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan calls it a real loss that the candidates’ religious affiliations and beliefs have become such a matter for public scrutiny–an interesting leap for a woman who served as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. Any manner of question about religion has become fair game on the campaign trail, perhaps because there is a new sense that one’s private religious beliefs may have a serious impact on public policy. When John F. Kennedy went before the nation to speak about his Catholicism in 1960, he was reassuring the public that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope and that he wouldn’t impose his religious views on others. Today, the candidates are falling all over each other to declare how their religious views will shape public policy–from abortion, to stem-cell research, to the teaching of evolution in our nation’s public schools. This is a significant, and for those of us who are not evangelical Christians, a worrying shift in the way America views its politicians and their jobs. In their efforts to become president of the United States, let us pray that these candidates don’t come to believe their job is to be president of the 37 percent of Americans who consider themselves evangelical Christians.