The Morning After — What Does it All Mean?

Evangelicals tend to swing between extremes when it comes to politics and elections. We are too easily elated and too readily depressed. Make no mistake. The election results of 2010 will lead to big changes in Washington and far beyond. That in itself is good news. But all this must be put in a truly Christian context.

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Damon Linker Offers a Religious Test — From the Left

One of the illusions of modernist thinking is that religious beliefs can be sanitized and separated from public life. The experience of humanity disproves that theory, but it nevertheless remains something of a sacred precept within the intellectual elites — a sector of society most prone to believing that religious convictions ultimately do not matter.

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of his speech, I argued once again against the position taken by John F. Kennedy when he spoke to a gathering of ministers during the 1960 presidential race. Sen. Kennedy spoke eloquently about his hope that his religious beliefs would be a private matter and his affirmation that he would keep them so. [See my article here.] This was a pledge that could be made only by someone who would straightforwardly say that his faith was not, in essence, a significant part of his intellectual framework.

In general, the political Left has tenaciously held to the Kennedy formula. But next week a book appears that might well reset that equation. Writing from the political Left, Damon Linker argues that religious convictions do matter — and matter a great deal.

His new book, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, is due out next week. We can gain a taste of what is coming through a major opinion piece he contributed to Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post.

Here is a crucial excerpt:

Every religion is radically particular, with its own distinctive beliefs about God, human history and the world. These are specific, concrete claims — about the status of the religious community in relation to other groups and to the nation as a whole, about the character of political and divine authority, about the place of prophecy in religious and political life, about the scope of human knowledge, about the providential role of God in human history, and about the moral and legal status of sex. Depending on where believers come down on such issues, their faith may or may not clash with the requirements of democratic politics.

That is a classic paragraph that will be hard for anyone to refute — unless you still believe that religion and public life can be neatly divided.

Now, Linker calls for the deregulation of sexual morality, and these controversial issues frame the urgency of his argument. I will take a closer look at his book next week.

When Telling the Truth “Isn’t a Risk Worth Taking”

Writing at The Los Angeles Times, Professor Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School argues that American presidents often do not get far ahead of public opinion on controversial matters — especially on matters of moral combat.

In making his case, Klarman argues that President Abraham Lincoln “was a relative latecomer to the abolitionist cause,” driven by Union losses on the battlefield to free the slaves. He argues further that Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy worked slowly on the issue of civil rights. Kennedy, he asserts, did not move to support civil rights within the first two years of his presidency because he needed the political support of conservative Democrats in order to achieve re-election.

Writing on “The Political Risks of Supporting Gay Rights,” Klarman explains that President Bill Clinton ran on a platform to eliminate the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, but he was forced to compromise after facing opposition from the military and congressional leaders. President Barack Obama, he reports, ran on a platform to eliminate all discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation but resisted any affirmation of same-sex marriage. Klarman attributes the President’s position to political necessity and polling.

In two very interesting paragraphs, he writes:

Public opinion on gay marriage has continued to evolve since 2004, when the nation opposed it by a margin of roughly 2 to 1. Most recent polls still show majority opposition, but the margin has shrunk to less than 10 percentage points. One well-respected statistician has estimated that by 2012 or 2013, a majority of people in a majority of states will support gay marriage.

Should Obama be reelected in 2012, he almost certainly will endorse gay marriage during his second term. By then, a majority of Americans, and an overwhelming majority of Democrats, will support the practice. Could Obama shift his position before 2012 without endangering his chances at a second term? Possibly.

Klarman’s analysis is interesting, but his prediction is fascinating. He openly predicts that President Obama “almost certainly will endorse gay marriage during his second term,” and he attributes the President’s current lack of open support for same-sex marriage to political necessity.

Klarman concludes:

But in many of the states that proved to be battlegrounds in the 2008 presidential campaign — Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida — majorities still oppose same-sex marriage. A presidential pronouncement in favor would rally conservative opposition and could prove crucial to some swing voters. For many political progressives who believe that the issue already may have cost Democrats one presidential election (and, with it, two Supreme Court appointments), the risk isn’t worth taking.

We can only wonder: how many politicians on both the right and the left take their positions based on such a political calculation? Apparently, for far too many, the risk of telling the truth “isn’t worth taking.”

John F. Kennedy in Houston, Fifty Years Later

On September 12, 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States, went to Texas and addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance. The background to Kennedy’s speech was ardent opposition to his Catholicism and accusations that, if elected, he would be controlled by Catholic authorities. Against the advice of many of his own senior staff, Kennedy decided to face the issue head-on, and to do so in a context that was anything but friendly.

Kennedy’s speech is one of the most memorable of his political career, and it may have been essential to his narrow victory over Vice President Richard M. Nixon just a few weeks later. And yet, what strikes us now is that this speech actually set the stage for a very unfortunate turn in national politics.

In essence, Senator Kennedy argued that his Roman Catholic faith would not be a consequential matter in his political life. He stated:

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

Note his assertion that his religious convictions “should be important only to me,” and thus of no public consequence. In the most famous line of the speech, he said: “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.” In his book, The Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy points to that language of “happens to be” as the language of avoiding or denying significance to beliefs.

Looking back, the Houston speech was probably a political necessity for Kennedy. A careful reading of the text will reveal much to admire, as well as many areas of concern. But, in the end, the significance of this speech lies in its role as the paradigm for so many that would follow, in which politicians and public figures would insist that their religious convictions and beliefs have no public consequence.

We must expect more than that. What we need is for politicians and candidates to tell us what they believe, and how this will be translated into a governing philosophy and moral/political decision-making. “Happens to be” is just not enough.