Wednesday, June 4, 2008

America's Political Religion

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So now it would appear as if we have two candidates for president: John McCain and Barack Obama. Notice I hesitate to say anything is settled just yet. Like many of you, I watched Hillary Clinton’s speech last night. I was waiting for her to congratulate her opponent for capturing the nomination, but it never happened. In fact, as the speech went on, I wondered if she was going to ask Obama to be her vice president.


I want to take a moment this morning to talk about the role religion plays in the political process. During the past few months, the major news networks, as well as the political pundits on cable television and radio, have told us all about Obama’s former preacher, Jeremiah Wright. Democrats have countered by reminding us that conservative televangelist John Hagee, a man who praised Adolf Hitler, has endorsed McCain. Both Obama and McCain have distanced themselves from these polarizing figures.


Susan Jacoby wrote a thought-provoking piece this morning in the Washington Post. Her premise? She says she wants to hear less about each candidate’s religious beliefs. She longs for the good old days when “whatever a candidate did or did not believe was considered personal—as long as the candidate avowed his support for the separation of church and state.”


Jacoby even brings Lincoln into the discussion by recounting how he declined to join a church in 1860 and seemed content to live with the potentially negative political repercussions. In the wake of Obama’s decision to resign from his former church, Jacoby seems to be encouraging him to take a Lincolnian view toward church affiliation in the future.


Jacoby’s editorial coincides with a fine piece written by Anthony Stevens-Arroyo for the Washington Post yesterday. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic, weighed the importance of religion and spirituality in the political process. I found this passage particularly interesting:



In one sense, I think spirituality is more desirable in a president than religion alone, although I hasten to add that both of them together would be the best of all possible worlds. The virtue produced by this match is defined with the Latin word, “pius.” This term ought not to be translated as “pious”—a better sense of its meaning is “loyal.” I would not claim that such a person is a saint: only that they are trying to be a saint.



Do we really expect our presidents to be saint-like?


Unfortunately, this passage reminded me of an etching (pictured above, color added) found in the Library of Congress. “Abraham Lincoln the Martyr-Victorious” by John Sartain hangs above a case that displays the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night of the assassination.


I want to choose my words carefully here. Sartain’s etching is…uhm…breathtaking.


Look at it closely. From the bottom up:


A Union soldier on guard is asleep outside either Ford’s Theater (where Lincoln was shot) or, more likely, the Peterson House (where Lincoln died).


Lincoln’s most identifiable earthly possession, his stove-pipe hat, rests on the ground. He won’t need his hat where he’s going as he ascends into Paradise.


There are angels on clouds with wings, but notice, the angels are slaves. However, why are the slave/angels still wearing chains? I’m not sure about that one. I thought the Great Emancipator had freed them by the time he was assassinated, right?


Now here comes the good part.


Look at Lincoln. Not only is he riding a cloud, ascending into Heaven, but what position is he in? His arms are outstretched, his feet are close together. It looks to me as if he is being crucified! Lincoln has been transformed in this painting. Forget saint-like, Lincoln has become Jesus; he has died for his country’s sins. Oh my!


And who is greeting him as he enters the Kingdom of Heaven? None other than George Washington. But notice, Washington is not an angel. He doesn’t have wings like the slave/angels below him. Washington is God. Yes, Washington/God is greeting his son Lincoln/Jesus.


The etching mimics the scene inside the state capitol in Springfield while Lincoln lay in state in 1865. A large banner on one side of the hall read, "Washington the Father," while another banner read, "Lincoln the Savior."


While Washington might well be the Father of the nation and Lincoln the Savior of the Union, I am sorry to say I have no idea what the flying log cabin is supposed to signify.

3 comments:

Michael Aubrecht said...

That is an interesting post to say the least. However, I would venture to guess that those voters, who don't consider a candidate's religious preference important, probably aren't regular church going people themselves (which is certainly their choice). To devout believers - those of us who willingly go to church more than once a week, pray on a daily basis (whether in crisis or not) and believe that every word in the bible to be true - we abide by a doctrine where every aspect of our lives are to be ultimately governed by our faith. Our theology dictates what we do (or don’t do), where we go (or don’t go), and whom we will vote for (or won’t vote for). In my home there is no alcohol, or gambling, or R-rated movies because we choose not to have those items due to our faith. Choosing the next president is a monumental choice. However, the election (to us) is just another lifetime decision that must be guided and influenced by our religious beliefs and convictions. Therefore, it is probably very easy for people who don’t practice organized religion to make the statement that ‘religion doesn’t matter’ to them at the polls, but to the rest of us in the evangelical community, it makes absolutely no sense. (Just another perspective. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.)

Michael Aubrecht said...

Please let me add that I don’t feel that everyone has to think the way I do, but to propose that a candidate’s faith shouldn’t be a major discussion point in a presidential campaign as it quote: ‘doesn’t matter’ alienates the portion of the voting population who do care about this subject. People vote on what is important to them. I’m not an ‘animal-lover,’ so I could care less about a candidate’s feelings on fur. That doesn’t mean I believe that a politician's stance on animal rights shouldn’t be up for consideration by those voters who do care. The bottom line is that different things matter to different people and we should all be able to put up with each other's concerns and considerations when collectively electing the next leader of our country.

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