Marshall Breger: Surprise, Politics and Religion Don’t Mix

October, 16 2012

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 pirsumei nisa—to publicize the miracle—to the entire world.

But public religiosity is also an identifier. The symbols of religion tell the world you are a believing Christian, Muslim or Jew. The traditional reason for men to wear a yarmulke was to show respect to God by not going bareheaded before Him. The custom was filled with waivers (some would say loopholes). Today, halacha aside, wearing a kippah is for many male Jews the public way to identify as Orthodox. It performs as much of a communal identity function as a religious one. In a fractured world growing more multicultural, if not polarized, religious identifiers help us to keep a scorecard.   Talking about your religiosity tells us where you stand in the culture wars.

How much do Americans care about politicians and their religiosity? You just need to glance at popular Christian histories about the Founding Fathers to see how important it is to Evangelicals that the founders were religious Christians (excepting perhaps Jefferson, who, though he attended church every Sunday he was in Washington, is often attacked because of his allegedly “errant” belief in a wall of separation between church and state). Perhaps this search for Christian roots is for some people necessary to support American exceptionalism and the belief that as a nation we are chosen by God.

Nevertheless, recent Pew Foundation polling of a large electoral cohort shows that plenty of Americans think that there is too much religious talk from politicians. (As one might expect, the numbers are far higher for Democrats and Independents—and lowest for Evangelical Protestants.) At the same time, however, a majority of Americans want religious values raised as part of the political debate. The difference between these findings is worth contemplating. It suggests that significant parts of the electorate are not against religious views in the public square; they just don’t want politicians harping on their piety.

I realize that many of those who promote wearing religiosity on one’s sleeve argue that for religion to count in the public sphere, you need to parade it there. For myself, I much prefer the approach of St. Francis of Assisi, who, we are told, instructed his followers, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.”  That strikes me as good wisdom for the reality show that passes for politics in our age.


Marshall Breger is a law professor at Catholic University.

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