The View From 1776

Why Religion Matters in Politics

As Steve Kellmeyer explains, the religious faith of political candidates matters when that faith seems to threaten the faith, traditions, and social standards of large portions of the electorate.

The Shibboleth of Political Progress
By Steve Kellmeyer

I like Peggy Noonan. I really do. She’s a great writer with a habit of calm, penetrating analysis that almost always brings you to think about the world from a different perspective.

But not this time.

In her most recent essay, Mrs. Noonan makes the point that religion was not an issue in politics forty years ago. Mitt Romney’s father campaigned for the presidency: his Mormonism was never a question. Richard Nixon’s Quaker roots, Lyndon Johnson’s Disciples of Christ upbringing, Nelson Rockefeller’s Baptist background, none of this mattered.

She admits that Kennedy’s Catholicism was something of an issue, but argues that religion never became a real political issue until the rise of the evangelical movement made Jimmy Carter’s evangelicalism a major campaign theme. She decries the fact that today we constantly delve into candidates’ religious backgrounds, even as she admits that the question is relevant.

But her analysis is uncharacteristic - it is hackneyed, done to death, old as Moses. As I was reading her essay, I found myself thinking, “I’ve read this before… not as well-written, but I’ve read it before.” In fact, it is nothing more than the common complaint that religion is a private matter and has no substantive place in politics.

Is that true?

Private Religion
C.S. Lewis wrote, “When the modern world says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,’ it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.’”

Mrs. Noonan correctly notes that Catholic candidates for the Presidency have always had a hard time of it and she correctly notes that religion was not much of an issue until Jimmy Carter came along. But she fails to think through the problem.

Why did evangelicalism make its rise in politics in the 1970’s as opposed to the 1990’s or the 1950’s? Why have Catholic presidential candidates always had a hard slog no matter what the age?

The answers to both questions are quite straightforward: it’s the problem of absolutism (or perceived absolutism) versus relativism.

Catholics were always opposed in political life precisely because Catholics were suspected of taking their marching orders from a foreign despot, an absolutist, in a word, the Pope. Al Smith didn’t just lose his candidacy because he was a city boy in an agricultural nation - city boys like Woodrow Wilson had won before.

No, Al’s problem was precisely that he was a Catholic whose Catholic values were necessarily seen as dramatically different than those held by a Protestant nation. Episcopalians may always have been called “the frozen chosen” but that was only because their worship was so close in outward form to Catholic worship. No one suspected them of actually being Catholics - the Anglican church had slaughtered too many priests for that suspicion to take root - but it was odd in comparison to the rest of America.

Still, the Episcopalians shared Protestant values, and that was what mattered. Catholics, on the other hand, lived in Catholic neighborhoods, Catholic ghettos, with their own distinct Catholic culture and Catholic life. They weren’t really, fully Americans.

It was Catholic Faith that had always been the odd duck in the United States, thus it was Catholic Faith that was the harbinger of the change Noonan comments on. What 1930’s Catholics were to the 1930’s Protestant Christian political elite, so have Christians in general become to the current political elite.

In the past, Catholics were attacked because they stood for something that the rest of the cultural elite did not. Today, Christians in general stand for something that the rest of the cultural elite does not.

No one asked about Nixon’s Quaker roots or Johnson’s Disciples of Christ upbringing because neither was a marker for anything. For all their ballyhooed theological differences, neither a 1950’s Quaker nor a 1950’s Episcopalian was going to vote to support legalizing gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, contraception or pornography. The cultural life of one was indistinguishable from the cultural life of another.

The Shibboleth
The Christian evangelical movement rose to political power in the late 1970’s precisely because Christians began to realize that their values were no longer being represented among the political elites. Even denominations that were fine with contraception and abortion were not fine with the increasingly pornographic culture that contraception and abortion inevitably creates. Christians began to notice skews, gaps, lacunae, holes, empty spaces between where they stood and where the nation was going.

Today, asking about a political candidates’ fervor in regards to religion is a short-hand way of asking where that candidate stands on a host of important cultural issues. Instead of delving into a dozen different topics, trying to ascertain the candidates’ position on each, the voter asks one question: “What is your relationship to Jesus Christ?” The answer to that question simultaneously answers all the others.

The practice is as old as Scripture itself:
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, “Let me go over”; that the men of Gilead said unto him, “Art thou an Ephraimite?” If he said, “Nay” Then said they unto him, “Say now Shibboleth” and he said “Sibboleth” for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. (Judges 12:5-6)

Test everything: hold to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Yes, Mrs. Noonan, religion is again an important question in politics.
Yes, this is progress.
Yes, it is good.

Steve Kellmeyer can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) .?His website is