When campaigning for a Congressional, Senate or indeed a Presidential race in US politics it is almost de ri·gueur to play the 'faith card' at some stage or other. This year's contest for the Democratic and Republican Presidential nominations has been no exception.
Crudely candidates in US politics have tended to fall into one of the three following categories:
1. I am a Christian so please give me your vote. I am a good guy/girl, I go to Church regularly and I am a person of simple faith just like you. You are a Christian and I am Christian – that’s all you need worry about.
2. I am Christian and I have a strong moral compass (particularly when it comes to ‘family’ values) so please give me your vote. Not only am I a Christian I am also a married Christian with a family. I think family life is the backbone of America; it is what makes our nation a great nation and we need to protect and promote the traditional family unit at all costs.
3. I am Christian and I have a strong moral compass (particularly when it comes to ‘family values) and I will keep religion out of politics so please give me your vote. I am a Christian but I will not let my Christian values get in the way of US policy in Iraq or Iran, or how, as a nation we deal with asylum seekers or with third world debt. I am a person of deep faith but it will never ‘get in the way’ of me doing a good job for my country.
Category 1 is just silly but highly popular – you might as well be saying ‘I voted for Leon on the X Factor and so did you, please vote for me.’ Category 2 is slightly more sinister – ‘I am normal, just like you are’ so vote for me. But for me category 3 is the most disappointing and, probably, the most prevalent.
In fairness no sane Presidential candidate is ever going to stand on a platform that openly opposes the death penalty or comes out in favour of a fairer distribution of wealth on grounds of religious conviction. Despite this one or two of the more progressive candidates in this year's race (for example Obama and Edwards) have spoken about the primacy of the values of liberty, security and prosperity and have even stressed the need for policies that promote greater equity, stronger communities and environmental sustainability. However, when candidates do raise such issues you can almost guarantee that they will do so in the most vague and general of ways - the importance of faith or religious belief in relation to areas of policy will rarely, if ever, be acknowleged.
Does it matter? Yes , think it does. Why? Because religious faith – particularly in the realm of US politics – is in danger of becoming a privatised, pietised and politically compliant servant of the status-quo. I believe that secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into public debate. Indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - for example Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.
My real concern though is that as we get closer to the ‘official’ start of the 2008 race for the White House there is a danger that any mention of religion will be considered off-limits to those who espouse a more progressive agenda and will, once again, become the handmaiden of the conservative and increasingly reactionary movement that has for so long dominated right of centre thinking in US politics. Such a prospect should worry us all.