How important is it that presidential candidates tell us whether or not they are Christians? For many Berkeley residents it’s not important at all; most of us feel that religious belief is a personal matter: what matters most is that candidates adhere to high ethical standards and honor the U.S. Constitution. But for many Americans, identifying as a Christian is shorthand for being on the “right” side. As a result, candidates for president are forced to talk about their Christian faith.
This comes as no surprise, as the United States is an extremely religious country: According to the May 10 Gallup Poll 86 percent of Americans believe in God—only 6 percent “don’t believe.” Our religious terrain is dominated by Christians: the most recent Gallup Poll indicated that 75 percent describe Christianity as their “religious preference”—only 11 percent say they have “none.” A large percentage of U.S. Christians profess fundamentalist beliefs: 43 percent of Protestants describe themselves as “born-again or evangelical” Christians. Typically, they have dogmatic, conservative beliefs: the Bible is literally true; the end times are coming soon; and the United States must become a Christian nation.
As George Bush’s popularity has waned, so has promotion of the concept that he is the anointed leader of the Christian nation: the notion that the United States functions better as a theocracy than it does as a democracy. Yet, a vast conservative Christian radio and television network has kept the Christian nation idea alive; they frequently declare that the Bible takes precedence over the Constitution.
The Christian Nation concept drives a coterie of conservative Christian commentators such as James Robison. In his most recent column, Robison dissected comments made by Democratic Presidential candidates at the recent “faith forum.” He quoted John Edwards: “I also understand the distinction between my job as president of the United States [and] my responsibility to be respectful of and to embrace all faith beliefs.” Robison countered: “So while some candidates profess to be true Christians, they feel a responsibility to embrace Islam, Atheism, Scientology, the New Age movement and every other belief (or at least select portions of them). Their wisdom holds that their leadership role demands a dualistic split between attitudes and actions. They personally want moral legislation, as defined by most mainstream Christians, but feel duty-bound to not provide it.” Robison invoked “true Christian believer” imagery: the notion that real Christians don’t accept theological diversity; for them there is only one source of truth, the Bible.
In his scathing 2004 critique of fundamentalism, “The End of Faith,” Sam Harris linked dogmatic religion and terrorism. Harris argued that the worst aspects of Islam—those that inspired the attacks of 9/11—are similar to the central tenets of ultra-conservative Christianity: there is one true religion; anyone who does not accept that religion is, by definition, an infidel; unbelievers will not get into heaven; and, for those who are shown the truth, the ends justify the means. Harris warned that unless the western world questions the core tenets of fundamentalist religions, we risk being swept into a global holy war fought with modern technology.
The Feb. 20 Gallup Poll checked American attitudes about race, sex, age, and other factors. The most negative attitude concerned atheism: 53 percent of respondents indicated they “would not vote for” an atheist. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised that Democratic as well as Republican candidates identify themselves as Christians; they don’t want to be seen as non-believers.
However, there are two faces of American Christianity: the fundamentalist wing that hungers for a Christian nation and believes that anyone who respects the rights of non-Christians is an apostate; and the other, more tolerant wing. Speaking to the convention of the United Church of Christ on June 23, Barack Obama spoke from the tolerant, progressive Christian perspective. He declared that religion has a part to play in American politics but defined it as the role of inclusion: uniting Americans to deal with common problems such as poverty and environmental degradation. Obama observed, “Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together… Faith started being used to drive us apart. Faith got hijacked.” The junior senator from Illinois blamed this on “the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us.” He indicated that the religious right has “hijacked” faith and divided the country using wedge issues.
Whoever the eventual Democratic and Republican presidential candidates turn out to be, there’s no doubt they’ll identify as a Christian. The critical question for American voters is what kind of a Christian they actually are: will the candidate be a fundamentalist Christian like Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback or will they be a progressive Christian like Barack Obama? They both proclaim their faith, but one has a closed, theocratic view that challenges democracy, while the other has an open, inclusive view that strengthens it. That’s a critical distinction in terms of protecting democracy and religious diversity.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org