Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bachmann, Cain and Gingrich: The Role of Religion in GOP Presidential Politics

I find the role of religion in GOP presidential politics to be fascinating.  This political season in particular has raised interesting and fairly unique issues to consider. 

For example, Michele Bachmann’s Evangelical appeal was tempered by her gender.  Representative Bachmann is a devout Christian with wonderful Evangelical credentials—from her formal education to her devotion to her large family to her political career emphasizing issues important to conservative Christians.  Nonetheless, she was one of the first to bow out of the GOP race.  Evangelicals never rallied around her though she was one of them.   This was not surprising to me because many such Christians who take a literal approach to the Bible believe that women have no legitimate role in leadership.  By virtue of their gender, it is thought women are unqualified to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

Herman Cain also had strong credentials as a conservative Christian.  The mainstream media seemed to focus more on his economic message, and the red flags about his personal life eventually sunk his campaign.  I wonder, however, how much the issues involving his personal life would have actually alienated Evangelicals if he had stayed in the race.  I was stunned that Newt Gingrich had a belated surge prior to Iowa’s caucuses.  Between his serial adultery, the two divorces and the ethics scandal that forced him to leave Congress, I myself couldn’t imagine how conservative Christians could support Mr. Gingrich.  But apparently many did—at least for a while.

Interestingly, to marry his current wife, Mr. Gingrich apparently agreed to formally convert to Catholicism.  I found it fascinating that this point was never really explored on the campaign trail.  In Europe and in this country, there has long been a bitter, bloody antagonism between Catholics and Protestants though they are all Christians.  Obviously it is not all about theology, there are deep and long-standing political and cultural issues intertwined. 

And that antagonism is not an ancient historical footnote.  When Senator John F. Kennedy was running for president, his Catholic faith was a political liability.  Many Protestants were very skeptical and even fearful that a Catholic president would be beholden to the Pope in Rome.  Senator Kennedy had to face those issues head-on and barely won the presidency.

I’ve mentioned in this blog that in my Christian walk I’ve been both a Catholic and a Protestant at different times in my faith journey.  I can personally attest that anti-Catholic bigotry is unfortunately still quite alive in this country.  When we were practicing Catholics, my husband and I sometimes had to endure really ugly comments about our church by ignorant co-workers.  We would listen to Christian radio stations and sometimes be appalled by hateful comments by callers and DJs discussing Catholicism.  When we drifted away from the Catholic church and were searching for a new church home, pastors whom we generally respected and admired would sometimes make not so subtle jabs about Catholic practices and attitudes.  Though they would not reference the Catholic religion by name, it was clear they were tapping into anti-Catholic sentiment of their respective flocks.  Such comments and mindsets are hurtful.  They are insulting.  They are sad.  The Body of Christ should be in harmony and not attacking itself from within.  That does nothing to further the Kingdom of God.

With that anti-Catholic sentiment still so prevalent, I was surprised that Mr. Gingrich’s Catholicism was not an issue on the campaign trail.  My own suspicion was that a couple of factors suppressed the potential issue. 

First, there were a lot of candidates and many voters were overwhelmed.  It was hard to get to know each candidate well, so I suspect that many voters just did not realize that Mr. Gingrich had converted. 

Second, for those who were closely examining Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy, there were frankly a lot of other non-policy, personal issues of concern.  Protestants who might otherwise have been suspicious of Mr. Gingrich’s religion were probably concerned by other issues such as his marriages and professional ethics. 

Third, because of how Mr. Gingrich had conducted his personal life, I also suspect that many voters took Mr. Gingrich’s conversion with a grain of salt.  A personal anecdote will help explain what I mean. 

For several decades, I have had a sweet friend who is a very spiritual person.  At one time or another, he has tried pretty much every religion around.  He was active in Catholicism for a while, then he studied and practiced Islam.  He regularly attended a Southern Baptist church for another period.  For a time, he was really drawn to Buddhism.  I think he even lived at a Buddhist monastery for a while.  I haven’t seen him for a while, but last I heard from mutual friends he had married and formally converted to the LDS church.  My friend tried so many religions through the years that we all took it with a grain of salt when he would embrace a new one.  We weren’t confident it would last because he did not tend to stick to any one religion for long. 

Similarly, I suspect that because of Mr. Gingrich’s personal life and the fact that he apparently converted in order to marry his current wife in the Catholic Church, many voters have not considered him a “real” Catholic.   If they had had more confidence in the depth of his conversion, his Catholicism might have been an issue in his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination.


1 Corinthians 12:15
If the foot shall say, "Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body," is it therefore not of the body?

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