Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Faith in Politics Is a Sword That Cuts Many Ways

On yesterday's Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio, Brian interviewed historian Julian Zelizer about the current political scene. They spent a fair amount of time discussing Mitt Romney's presidential bid, which as you've heard is having some trouble gaining traction among the Republican right because many evangelical Christians are suspicious of Mormons, no matter how socially conservative they may be.

At some point in the conversation, Zelizer remarked that it was "ironic" that the Republicans, a political party that has been trying hard for the past two decades to impose a religious test for candidates to high public office, should now be showing signs of internal fracture over religious differences.

Actually, it isn't ironic at all. When you drag religion into politics, a steadily deepening set of rifts along sectarian lines is exactly what you should expect. It's no accident that, in a country like Iraq, where political, cultural, and religious identities are increasingly merged, voting is neatly divided by religion, with Kurds voting for Kurds, Sunnis for Sunnis, and Shiites for Shiites. (And when the voting is over, the groups start shooting at one another along the same sectarian lines.)

If the Republicans thought they could unleash the sectarian genii just enough to benefit them at the polls, they may have another think coming. Encourage people to believe that only "a person of faith" is fit to serve in government, and the next logical step is for them to evaluate exactly what kind of faith each candidate professes--because after all, everyone knows that one person's faith is another person's heresy.

If (God forbid) we follow this path for another generation or so, we may find ourselves in a country where people routinely and openly vote for "the Baptist candidate," "the Catholic candidate," "the Jewish candidate," etc., and where parties or party caucuses affiliate themselves with particular religious denominations.

I am "a person of faith," but I don't find this a very appetizing vision for America. The last thing our political scene needs is an additional infusion of pious zealotry and theological dogmatism.

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