Raising Cain

The Bible doesn’t contain many good horserace stories. The early stages of a presidential candidate race, however, are rather like a horserace (I don’t pay much attention to either). Unless one (or more) of the horses get religious. It seems that a candidate can’t cinch a Grand Old Party nomination without laying bets on religion. I’ve no idea how religious Mitt Romney is, but his religion itself forces the issue. Rick Perry wears it on his sleeve and in his pious grin. The keep in the heat, Herman Cain has now pulled out his religious credentials. God told him to run for president. So he says. Since the Bible doesn’t mention any candidates by name, we have to take his word for it. (Although I doubt Cain actually wants to be associated with his biblical namesake.)

God’s been down a bit on the divine luck lately. With all the causes the Big Guy has supported being lost to others (one thinks of the “Gott und Ich” mentality that stretches far back beyond World War One) you’d think that those chosen by God might keep the matter quiet. At least until the results are assured. Once that card has been laid, to shift metaphors, it can’t be trumped by any other. A card laid is a card played. How can a candidate climb higher than God for the next debate? And when one or another of God’s chosen loses—and this is inevitable—it is clear that God is dragged into the mud with the almost chosen candidate.

There has been much talk and debate about the role of religion in government. In a nation as religious as the United States it is purely impractical to keep the two impolite subjects apart. We only want a religious man in the White House. Preferably Protestant, but beyond that any flavor will do. In the 80’s at least one was Tutti Frutti, in a manner of speaking. The actual religious beliefs expressed by our national leaders would certainly lead to raised eyebrows among the truly conservative, if such matters truly mattered.

Back in college, it was considered wise advice never to try to stuff any variety of underwear in order to create an illusion of size—such tactics are bound to end in disappointment. It is lesson that politicians never learn. There will always be some disillusioned followers the morning after, unless, of course, the racehorse analogy is the proper one. And the Bible will back me up on that.

It's all in the reading

Scared Mittless

Once again Time magazine has presented an article where the intelligent are left scratching their heads about religion. Jon Meacham’s Commentary, “An Unholy War,” details how evangelical concerns about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has an undue weight in regard to his presidential candidacy. For many years the media industry has considered religion passé and without teeth. Sure, the street-corner preacher can still give you a good gumming, but it is rarely fatal. What those who’ve never felt the utter urgency of religion can’t appreciate is, well, its utter urgency. In a day when Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns are wired up to electrodes and told to find that spiritual sweet spot, it is easy to forget that these aren’t just laboratory fictions. For many people in the world, their religious experiences are very important and of sometimes deadly—sometimes eternal—consequence. The sophisticated, the educated, laugh it off as so much hoodoo, and try to get on with human progress. For those raised religious, however, escape is neither easy nor desirable. Those in positions of actually influencing the public need to recognize that religion is not a luxury, a trapping that might be cast off. It is a life choice cast in iron.

Just as serious as the analysis of religion is the incredible influence of religious teaching itself. Take a young child, barely old enough to understand death, and tell him or her that the worst thing they can imagine just can’t compare with the torment God has cooked up for those who step out of line. Repeat. At least once a week. When said child becomes an adult, these early ideas are deeply embedded. Since the 1980s elections in the United States have been restyled as religion popularity contests. With eternal consequences riding on the ballot, political analysts ought to be required to have had taken at least Religion 101. Probably a few upper-level courses would also help. Despite the optimism of scientists and academics, religion is not going away. The reluctance to take it seriously will not diminish its power in people’s lives.

As became very clear reading Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs, it has only transpired that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints has been recognized as un-culted for less than a hundred years. As a relatively new religion, Mormonism was a “cult” until it had survived long enough to gather a band of respectable followers, such as Mitt Romney. Many Christian groups, particularly evangelical ones, have not released their perception of Mormonism as a cult. Romney, in their eyes, is effectively as pagan as Obama. Their votes, as the eight-year nightmare of the Bush administration demonstrates, can decide elections. Still, we the sophisticated laugh off the country rubes who still believe in God. And although we don’t believe in it, we already have, and may well once again, come to suffer through Hell to show just how educated we are.

Funny Faith

The entertainment industry is a window through which we might see what it is we value. After all, our mad-money and disposable income are often channeled toward the things we want, as opposed to what we really need. Living near New York City, it is clear that entertainment is also big business. Last night Spider-Man opened on Broadway to decidedly lackluster reviews. The web-slinger has had quite a journey from comic book to the musical stage—sometimes making it big, other times getting squashed. Earlier this week, however, it was The Book of Mormon that was making the news. Winning nine Tony awards, this musical is the first thing to pop up on a Google search when “Book of Mormon” is typed in (at the moment), I suppose, much to Mitt Romney’s chagrin.

A friend recently asked me why people take religion so seriously. To me it seems that it is a matter of historical development. Most religions developed before the culture of leisure took over. As I tell my students each semester, even in the early part of last century most people lived on farms rather than in cities. Time for leisure was rare and life was taken seriously: all work and no play. If we push that back a century, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was started, the effect was even more widespread. Go back to the days of Muhammad, Jesus, or Moses and the struggle to survive gets increasingly more difficult. Religion is a coping mechanism. When worries about food and shelter become less onerous, we can laugh at the path that led us here. Along the way few of us have met radioactive spiders, but most of us have been warmed, singed, or wholly consumed by religion in some form.

Well, in the entertainment industry talent also plays into it. But it has to be the right combination of talent. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have been making the social commentary A-list for several years now. (Bono and the Edge have too, but Broadway just doesn’t seem to be their genre.) Maybe trying to convert those of vastly different culture to white-shirt-and-tie, clean-cut American values is inherently funny. I suspect there is something more at work here. We are allowed to laugh at Mormonism—the other white religion—without too much recrimination. It is safe. What I doubt we’d ever see on Broadway is The Book of Common Prayer: the Musical. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Incredible Hulk lurch onto stage and burst into song.

Everybody dance!

Faith Value

An interesting op-ed piece by Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times appeared in today’s newspaper. McManus notes that twenty-eight of the forty-four Presidents of the United States have come from just four mainstream Protestant denominations. This year’s Republican front-runner list contains no mainstream Protestant denominational candidates at all. This McManus takes to reflect a growing tolerance among the American populace, but also shows how deeply rooted religion is in what has become, in a covert way, a theocratic state. Religious sentiment rules politics and savvy politicians know how to play the religion card to achieve the power they crave. As McManus’ column makes clear, when campaign season rolls around candidates begin attending church again. Of course, the average American accepts their sincere proclamations of religious faith at face value.

McManus also points out that the front-runner for the GOP, Mitt Romney, will face some difficulty as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Most evangelical Protestants reject Mormonism from their fold, claiming that they follow a different shepherd or just see everything through rose-colored glasses. Mormonism, however, is among the fastest growing denominations in the country (the claim for fastest is staked by far too many to get an accurate count; it is a safe bet, however, that it is evangelical). Mormons tend to come down on the right side of conservative social issues, but without the seal of mainstream approval, the bid for presidency remains a difficult goal.

The other corollary that McManus points out is that mainstream denominations are losing their place of social prominence. Today it is far more likely that a person refers to a Pentecostal or non-denominational believer (or even a Catholic!) as a “Christian” than they would refer to a Methodist, Presbyterian, or a Lutheran as such. Both the political and religious rules have changed. Americans want a Christian President, but they have lost sight of what that actually means. In the mud-slinging that accompanies any campaign season, suspicions cast on a candidate’s political orthodoxy will be sure to score big points. It is an open question whether a democracy and a theocracy can truly coexist.

WWJ(S)D?

Joseph Smith in the Spotlight

Mormons on Broadway? Well, not actual LDSers, but their famous founding document, The Book of Mormon, is now a Broadway show. While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for The Quran to be produced, holy books have often been utilized by the media as rich venues for timeless tales. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind as Lloyd Webber adaptations. Godspell, while not as directly scriptural, drew its inspiration from the Gospels (particularly Matthew). Those who lose are those who resist the free press of popular culture.

At the risk of sounding Niebuhrian, the religion that refuses the blessing of society is the one that will fade away. Religions are human institutions, and as such, require human adherents. Critics often claim that popular adaptations of their sacred writ are making fun of the texts, but is not cultural adaptation all about celebrating a story that has won its way into the media and outside the confines of rigid orthodoxy? Which version can be said to be truly alive? This is not theology, it’s theater.

Working with students who have very little background in the Bible, I clearly see the wisdom of taking what are admittedly dry texts and bringing them to life. Religions often founder in the process of mistaking form for substance. Literalism has done more to damage religions that it has to keep them pure. Reviews from the Book of Mormon attest to its appeal, and in a country where the Latter Day Saints are generally considered the second-fastest growing church, the musical is a boon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can hardly be accused of attempting to convert the heathen, but their show cannot but help to bring this particular denomination into the public eye nearly as much as Mitt Romney’s attempted candidacy will. That’s what I call rose-colored glasses!

You've seen the show, now why not read the book?

Constantine’s Dilemma

A time-honored adage educates each generation not to discuss religion or politics in polite company. The reasons for this are transparent; both religion and politics tend to be fiercely held belief systems and clashes between differing parties seldom end without scars and regrets. I recently read Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. Initially my impression is that this book ought to be required reading for members of any political party so that they might find documented evidence of whence the real power struggles lie. It is known by anyone with a modicum of political savvy that the past several presidential elections have been decided on the success of courting voters of the evangelical variety of Christianity. What Blumenthal reveals and other sources confirm is just how intermixed religion and politics have become.

One of the most important books of last year

This is a very thorny issue. America was founded as a nation advocating religious freedom and also as a nation that would open its leadership to any qualified (more-or-less) candidate. Clergy have historically served in politics, but presidential candidates who are actively ordained and practicing their office have been rare. Not so rare in recent years, however, are those who forsake the adage and boldly proclaim their faith as a key to garnering votes. This has led to a public interest and scrutiny of what used to be the extremely private life of an individual. Religious beliefs, quietly held, motivate many people – presidents and politicians included. The difficulty Blumenthal highlights erupts when the genuinely religion-driven charge for political office with the hopes of implementing policy based on their personal faith. Americans have taken a new interest in discovering what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is all about with the recent candidacy of Mitt Romney. We covered that religious landscape in Religion 101. Reading Blumenthal, however, I learned something new about Sarah Palin’s religious convictions.

Deemed “the Third Wave” movement (see also Bruce Wilson’s article in the Huffington Post), Palin’s religion is a variety of Christianity I’d never heard of even with a lifetime in the field of religious studies. What seems clear from the sketchy information available is that the putative wave began in the 1980s (when I was too busy studying religion to notice) with the work of Rev. C. Peter Wagner. Its goal, according to its theologians, is the takeover of first the church and then the world. Not just metaphorically. Since Palin told reporters, according to today’s paper, that she is seriously considering a run for the presidency in 2012, I wonder if it is time for all of us to go back to school and learn a little more about this variety of religious belief. I’m old enough to remember a time when politics was politics and religion was religion, and ne’er the twain did meet. That day is gone, and Americans will find it necessary to learn about religions again to discover the sometimes hidden motives behind politicians’ decisions. Max Blumenthal’s book is an excellent primer, but frankly, I long for the days I still recall when politics and religion had separate, securely locked bedrooms.