Surprise, Politics and Religion Don't Mix: Americans Are Tired of Politicians Who Wear Their Religion on Their Sleeves

By Breger, Marshall | Moment, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

Surprise, Politics and Religion Don't Mix: Americans Are Tired of Politicians Who Wear Their Religion on Their Sleeves


Breger, Marshall, Moment


In the mid-1980s I accompanied then-Vice President George H. W. Bush to a ceremony where a mezuzah was placed at the entrance of the newly purchased Jewish War Veterans building in Washington. As we drove to the site, I took out a selection of six or eight yarmulkes for him to choose one to wear. The Vice President resisted. But I'm not Jewish, he said. They will think I am pandering. You could look at it that way, I replied, but take it from me, the Jewish veterans will be happy to be pandered to. A religious man himself, Bush was intensely private about his faith. And he considered it beneath his dignity to wear his religion on his sleeve (or head) and even more so to wear someone else's religious garb. This approach to piety was common among politicians of his generation.

Fast-forward to the 2012 primary season. Republican candidates were professing their faith in any way possible. They were trumpeting their conversion experience, discussing their relationship with Jesus Christ and telling the world about the minutiae of their own religious practice. Even Mitt Romney, who did not want to talk much about his Mormonism, was more than ready to wrap himself assertively around faith writ large.

What we have seen in the last 25 years is a reversal in how we judge a person's faith in the political process. It is not enough to be a Christian. You have to tell people you are. In some respects, this need to show off one's religiosity so as to be counted as religious reflects, in Lionel Trilling's words, "the age of authenticity." It is not enough to have sincerity; you have to advertise it. Thus in a sympathetic op-ed in The Washington Post, Michael Gerson suggests that "Romney's pressing need to inject some authenticity ... into his campaign is the primary reason he should talk more about his faith." In an age of authenticity, your values (indeed, your life) become real only if you talk about them.

The question, of course, is why so many people believe that talking about your religiosity is a sign that you really are religious. To some extent, this view reflects the Evangelical Protestant injunction to declare the "good news": If you have the keys to salvation, you surely want to tell your neighbors how they too can be saved. Such public religiosity can also demonstrate a desire to praise God and glorify Him. This is likely the motive of the Chabad rabbis who opt for the most public display possible of the chanukiah on Chanukah, following the rabbinic dictum of pirsumeinisa--to publicize the miracle--to the entire world. …

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