Earlier this year, a group of people representing a range of professional, political, and spiritual backgrounds were asked by the Harvard Divinity School journal Religion, Values, and Public Life to take part in a written forum by answering the following question: What do you think is the most important point being overlooked as religious belief is brought up as a topic by the candidates, and then is discussed by reporters, commentators, and the public in this campaign year? Four respondents' answers are printed below:

Wendy Kaminer
Author of "Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety" What's missing from public discussions of religion and politics is the recognition that we should be discussing sectarianism and politics instead. With the notable exception of Bill Bradley during the primaries, the presidential candidates have not simply been indulging in God talk; they've been indulging in Christ talk. None of them would be tempted to advertise their religious beliefs if they were members of a minority faith. Just try to imagine a presidential candidate naming Muhammad as his favorite "philosopher/thinker." A Muslim running for office today would have to stress his respect for the separation of church and state, not his desire to ally government with religion. He'd have to follow the example set by John Kennedy in 1960: Catholics were then a suspect minority within the Christian majority (recently, conservative Catholics have been embraced by the Protestant right), so Kennedy had to assure voters that he'd heed their voices and not the dictates of the pope.
Candidates for national office who assure us of their allegiance to Jesus ought to remind us of the majoritarianism that inevitably accompanies efforts to sanctify public life. Al Gore has tried to soften the sectarianism of his testimony (probably someone reminded him that not quite all Democrats are Christian): In a recent interview, he painstakingly stressed that non-Christians and even atheists can be good people, too. My atheist friends were amused to find themselves the targets of political pandering. ("Al Gore will stop at nothing," one said.) But I'm still waiting for a reporter to ask Gore and George W. Bush if they'd support giving tax dollars to "faith-based" social service programs run by the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, or the Reverend Moon. Politicians like to talk about the American people as if we were a monolith. The American people are fundamentally decent, or compassionate, or in favor of campaign finance reform, they routinely intone--and I always want to ask them why, if we're all so decent, they feel compelled to imprison nearly 2 million of us. Reporters and commentators, as well as politicians, talk about religion as if it were monolithic, too--as if, despite their differences, the American people were fundamentally ecumenical. That obscures the dangers of government partnerships with religious sects; it makes separationism seem, at best, unnecessary. If we are all united by belief in God and "faith-based" notions of virtue, why insist that government maintain its distance from religion?
But the image of American society united by belief is, of course, a fantasy. It's true that in recent years, new political alliances have formed between some Orthodox Jews, conservative Protestants, and Catholics. Sometimes, religious traditionalists feel more threatened by secularism than by other faiths. But Jews are still offended by the efforts of some Christians to convert them. Muslims are still disdained by Congress, which recently defeated a resolution encouraging tolerance toward them. (Disputed provisions in the proposed resolution included a stated commitment to upholding "a level of political discourse that does not involve making a scapegoat of an entire religion.") The sectarianism of the presidential campaign ought to clarify, not cloud, this fact of life: Most Americans may be united by faith--the impulse to believe--but we're divided by religion. Next Page >
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