Religion in Politics: JFK Yes, Mitt No
It’s time for another religion in politics column, a topic I haven’t broached for about 5 years. At least my opinions (and my examples, those 2002 Salmon signs!) haven’t changed that much since my last column, even if now we have all these Republicans telling us that there’s too much religion in politics these days. If you can tell any difference between what Mike Huckabee is saying about religion and what George W. Bush said about religion, I’d like to understand exactly what it is.
Huckabee has improved America in one way, however, as all the GOP bigwigs who are so fearful of him have given up on the so-called "War on Christmas." They must figure it’s like dealing with small children, you can’t be inciting the religious base at the same time as you’re trying to get them to go to sleep.
FOR GOP HOPEFULS, RELIGION CAN BE PART OF CAMPAIGN -- ON THEIR TERMS
East Valley Tribune, Dec. 23, 2007
To my LDS friends watching Mitt Romney twist slowly in the evangelical wind, I say "I feel your pain." And to Republicans who thought the slickest Arkansas politician ever was Bill Clinton, nobody twists the knife as skillfully as Mike Huckabee.
Romney’s "religion" speech was like a soufflé; it was fine when served, but as time has passed -- and as Huckabee has passed Romney in the polls -- it doesn’t look so great. The speech contained two contradictory ideas, glossed over in the rhetoric: That religion is the most important thing in public life, but that differences in religion are the greatest danger to public life.
Most people believe in a religion, but the speech proclaimed that there’s some large, all-encompassing tent called "Religion" in which all may dwell. Any resemblance to an actual religion, however, is strictly coincidental.
The Romney-Huckabee religious debate recalls the 2002 Arizona gubernatorial election, when anonymous "Vote Mormon" signs appeared next to Matt Salmon’s campaign posters. Salmon and this newspaper denounced the signs as "a cowardly, underhanded act of bigotry" aimed at anti-LDS prejudice.
However, it was fine for Salmon to let the LDS community know he was Mormon and go on Christian television and say he wanted "to reclaim government" for the Almighty -- but nobody else could mention his religion except only on his terms. That seems to be Romney’s position, too; he wants to say exactly as much as he wants about his religion, casting it as just another version of evangelical Protestantism, but nobody gets to say anything more without becoming a bigot.
Huckabee is fouling up these calculations, because he’s essentially putting up signs saying "Vote Evangelical." I sure don’t think the bookcase in Huckabee’s Christmas ad just happened to look like a cross. But Ronald Reagan taught me that in politics, don’t shy away from a fight if there are more voters on your side than the other guy’s. Huckabee’s done the math, and if the argument is religion, more GOP primary voters are with him than against him.
Huckabee also is preaching a second, non-religious sermon, of populist resentment. He’s started talking more about the "Wall Street to Washington" establishment opposing him, an establishment that likes having the religious right’s votes but ignores them afterwards. He’s making oblique references to 15-year-old slurs that still anger evangelical voters, who seem to be getting the point. It’s nice to have the GOP’s faux populism pushed back in their faces by a politician who clearly makes so many Republican power players uncomfortable.
So as a religious minority myself, it’s not that clear what Huckabee’s saying is so different than what GOP candidates -- including the Gipper -- have long said. If you say the East Valley is so great because we’re "very Mormon, very Catholic, and very evangelical," then those of us not in any of those categories might see your "tolerance" as very self-serving indeed.
Once you open the door to religion in politics, how much becomes too much? Some claim a significant moral difference between arguing "Vote for me, I’m one of you" (Vote Evangelical!) and saying "Don’t vote for him, he’s not one of us" (Vote Mormon!) That simply doesn’t work in practice; campaigns only spend money proclaiming "I’m one of you" if they think (or want voters to think) the other guy isn’t.
Huckabee (most of the time, anyway) is making the "positive" argument, but it’s working because the positive version makes the negative argument for him. And with his assertion that religion is the essential basis of democracy (quick, tell the Saudis!), Romney’s lost that argument.
If I’m a Jewish candidate and my opponent talks about how he accepted Jesus as his savior, thereby making the implicit point that I haven’t, is that OK? If so, then what’s Huckabee’s sin?
The usual right-wing complaint is that secular liberals want to drive religion out of the public square. Well, the public square has seen plenty of religion recently, and the usual suspects -- excepting Mike Huckabee and his supporters -- don’t seem very happy.