Religion on the Campaign Trail

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are faithful men who don’t shy away from talking about their beliefs. What does this mean for American religion?

President Barack Obama writes eloquently about his faith journey in The Audacity of Hope, describing Easter and Christmas visits to church, Chinese New Years spent at Buddhist temples, and time at Shinto shrines and ancient Hawaiian burial grounds. His multivalent childhood gave way to a deeper examination of faith when he lived in Chicago working for Catholic-funded nonprofits as a young community organizer. Finally, after struggling through an inner journey of doubt and disbelief, Obama writes that he:

was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to His truth. (208)

Last week, Obama once again spoke about his faith, saying that it compelled him to take a stance that is perhaps outside the mainstream Christian canon, but nonetheless playing a role in his deliberations.

Prompted by his Catholic vice president’s comments on same-sex marriage during an interview on Meet the Press a few days prior, Obama sat down with ABC News and explained his now evolved views on same-sex marriage. He has long championed civil unions, but Obama said repeatedly that he did not personally believe in calling such arrangements marriage. This is his new position:

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

He then cited the religious motivation that led him to his conclusion:

“In the end the values that I care most deeply about and [Michelle] cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.”

A few days later, Obama’s likely opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney, offered the commencement address at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a sort of Holy See for U.S. Evangelicalism.

During the speech, in which he reaffirmed his support for traditional marriage and gave a shout out to the religious liberty crowd, Romney offered a moving credo on the purpose of life:

“Someone once observed that the great drama of Christianity is not a crowd shot, following the movements of collectives or even nations. The drama is always personal, individual, unfolding in one’s own life. We’re not alone in sensing this. Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life…

“What we have, what we wish we had — ambitions fulfilled, ambitions disappointed … investments won, investments lost … elections won, elections lost — these things may occupy our attention, but they do not define us. And each of them is subject to the vagaries and serendipities of life. Our relationship with our Maker, however, depends on none of this. It is entirely in our control, for He is always at the door, and knocks for us. Our worldly successes cannot be guaranteed, but our ability to achieve spiritual success is entirely up to us, thanks to the grace of God. The best advice I know is to give those worldly things your best but never your all, reserving the ultimate hope for the only one who can grant it.”

Turning toward faith

Support either Obama or Romney, both or neither, what I find striking is that the nominees from both major parties embrace lives of faith that are outside the mainstream, and yet neither shies away from discussing his faith on the campaign trail.

Some voters have never quite believed Obama’s sincerity regarding his Christian faith, perhaps explaining why still to this day many believe he is a secret Muslim (he is not). But his story is perhaps uniquely and wonderfully American. Exposed to a plethora of stories and beliefs, gods and rituals, Obama figured out for himself what he believed. Once he accepted the Christian story, it seems to have animated his public life. It’s not everyone’s version of Christianity, but there is something American in that as well.

Romney’s faith is American through and through: sacred texts were discovered in North America, Jesus visited the Americas during the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and their most important prophets happen to be 19th-century American frontiersmen. But this American faith has been regarded with suspicion by mainstream Christians from its inception through today. As I’ve noted, Romney continues to experience a somewhat strained relationship with Evangelicals. Before his speech at Liberty, the student newspaper ran a pro/con column about the merits of a Mormon speaking, and a course at the University on the occult includes Mormonism in the syllabus. Despite this, Romney has begun to speak about his faith a bit more comfortably and will win the nomination of a party that is ruled by Evangelical Christians.

As the slow march toward November 6 continues, I am sure Obama and Romney will once again turn toward their faith to explain how they come to certain decisions about their policy. And just as John Kennedy helped bring Catholicism into the mainstream through his election in 1960, perhaps Romney and Obama will help change the definition of mainstream today. Romney, for a once-persecuted American faith, and Obama for those who seek. Drawing wider the circle. What is more American than that?