2016-07-27
Even though Al Gore and George W. Bush have locked up the presidential nominations, they have quickly assured a worried nation there will be no let-up in their ferocious campaigning for the White House. As if we doubted it for a single moment. Too bad for them and even worse for us. I fear we are in for eight months of nonstop "speechifying," daily photo-ops, personal appearances on hundreds of TV shows, and a steady barrage of negative commercials. God forbid either of these hard-driving professional politicians should take even a one-day vacation from the campaign trail. Clearly, the American public will be subjected to repeated personal descriptions of the candidates' "born-again" spiritual conversions as well as pictures of Al and "W" attending church services every Sunday morning. Because of the polling data, ministers, rabbis and priests will see very little of Bush in California and New York, while clergy members in Texas won't be shaking Gore's hand too often. However, you can be certain the candidates will be making many appearances at various clergy associations in swing states like Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Gore and Bush will numb the electorate with endless orations about the virtues of family values and the urgent need for public morality. The Republicans will happily re-run tapes of the vice president's 1996 fund-raising visit to a Buddhist temple, and in the true spirit of ecumenism, the Democrats will counter with the Texas governor's long,
problem-filled walk to the Bob Jones University podium earlier this year. You can be sure when Gore and Bush speak in storefront churches within Hispanic barrios, the candidates will chatter away in carefully practiced Spanish. And the two men will punctuate their appearances in African-American churches with lots of high-fives all around. Gosh, for a moment we might even forget Al and "W" are graduates of, dare I say it, Harvard and Yale, and both come from elitist ultra-establishment political dynasties. In the long run to Nov. 7, both men will wear their religions on their sleeves. The Southern Baptist Gore will eagerly seek to pin the extremist religious right label on Bush, and the latter, a United Methodist, will do all he can to tar Gore with the "liberal" epithet, both religiously and politically. Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus can only watch the upcoming Protestant religious mud fight in bewilderment. The highly visible role of religion in the 2000 campaign is in stunning contrast to earlier presidential elections. In 1952 and 1956 Dwight Eisenhower, who was raised in a Mennonite peace church tradition, twice defeated the Unitarian, Adlai Stevenson. Incredibly, Eisenhower became a formal church member--as a Presbyterian -- after he was elected president the first time. Ike's entry into church membership was probably a recognition that an American president should, after all, be religiously affiliated.
At a now historic 1960 meeting with a group of Houston Protestant ministers, John F. Kennedy had to practically apologize for being a Roman Catholic. JFK felt the political need to assure the ministers his Catholicism would not interfere with his duties as America's chief executive. Richard Nixon attempted to micro manage things spiritual by inviting carefully chosen clergy to conduct religious services inside the White House. The Sunday services were by invitation only and were justified on security grounds. However, critics said the the White House rites were a Nixonian attempt to control religion for his own advantage and to avoid hearing sermons critical of his Vietnam war policies. The practice has not been repeated by later presidents. Interestingly, Ronald Reagan, a favorite of the religious right, rarely attended church services and had little contact with his children. So much for presidential "family values." But today it is politically unthinkable for a candidate to be without a religious affiliation or to maintain a spotty church attendance record. Ironically, one of Bill Clinton's most indelible images (and there are many!) is the picture of him leaving church each week with his hands clutching both a Bible and his wife. It is one presidential standard Clinton's successor will surely strive to maintain.

What we will probably not hear from Gore or Bush is the kind of refreshing honesty exhibited by Abraham Lincoln who, at the beginning of the Civil War, was reported to have said that while he hoped to have both God and Kentucky on his side, if it were a choice, he would take Kentucky.

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