Today marks the final day of my Iowa odyssey. The state that is about as heart-of-the-nation as you can get is chaffing under the weight of political lard as the caucuses near. According to the Huffington Post, Newt Gingrich is roaring mad about the negative ads that are choking the airwaves. You’d think with a life in politics he’d be used to it by now. Religion, of course, is playing an undue role in this season’s GOP contest—everyone knows Mitt Romney is a Mormon and publishers are scrambling to get out books on that religion as fast as their authors can write. Rick Perry, to the chagrin of many, bears a Methodist affiliation and the religious sensibility of Genghis Khan. Of course, Newt appears relatively calm as a Catholic, at least for the time being. Jack Kennedy, however, he is not.
The Republican Party began a flirtation with religious conservatives as early as the Nixon years. Pundits realized that, like the Alaskan oil reserves, religious fundamentalists were an untapped resource to grease the rails to election day. Overjoyed to have a voice in high profile public office, the conservative Christian crowd began to wilt from the perceived failure of Jimmy Carter and began to glom onto the media image projected by Ronald Reagan. We all suffered through the Bush years, hearing more about God from the president than we heard about the soaring national debt or the coming crash that would implode upon the working class that elected him to office (so they say). Now, facing the choice of candidates wealthy enough to run for office, many are finding the choices on the shelves of the spiritual marketplace a little understocked.
Back in the days when America was young, the founders laid down rules declaring that no religious tests would be imposed on those running for public office. Their fears proved prescient and uncannily accurate. Today perhaps the biggest test any candidate has to pass is his or her religious affiliation. Can we imagine a Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann without their Bibles tucked under arm? Religion has no corner on the market for sanity. Many, in fact, would argue that the indications sometimes point in the other direction. The corner America has painted itself into is not so much shaded with red, white, and blue, as it is with the muddy brown of religious slurry that has become the new politics. Newt, newly minted from his Southern Baptist heritage, is mad about mudslinging. I think Americans should be enraged about religion slinging instead.