You’ve gotta love it when a news cycle conspires to expose the double standard of the media. A couple of weeks ago on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Franklin Graham, son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, expressed doubts about the sincerity of President Obama’s Christianity. “He has said he’s a Christian,” Graham said, “so I just have to assume that he is.” Still, Graham wouldn’t say, without qualification, that Obama is a Christian. He pointed to the President’s actions while in office and suggested that when Obama joined a church in Chicago, it had more to do with public relations than religious conversion.
Predictably, much of the media and many so-called “faith leaders” were shocked–shocked–at Graham’s hesitation, as if doubting the sincerity of the President’s religious beliefs were a violation of Article VI of the Constitution.
Almost simultaneously, Matt Drudge posted the audio of a 2008 speech that Rick Santorum gave at Ave Maria University, a Catholic college in south Florida. Santorum spoke of Satan setting his sights on the United States. “Satan is attacking the great institutions of America,” he said, “using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that have been so deeply rooted in the American tradition.”
Again, much of the media at least feigned shock at his references to the Father of Lies. We were treated to Santorum/Satan stories for over a week. But Santorum’s language is conventional Christian theology. How can it be scandalous for someone to doubt the robustness of President Obama’s Christianity, and also scandalous for Rick Santorum to express robust Christianity? If then-Senator Barack Obama had given the same speech at a Christian college in 2008, is there any doubt that the media response would have been entirely different? Why is the press protective of Obama’s Christian faith, but troubled by Santorum’s?
Here’s one possibility: most of the media secretly agree with Franklin Graham. That is, they defend President Obama’s God talk because they assume that it’s mostly camouflage for their favored left wing policies. Since the hoi polloi believe all that God stuff, they suppose, liberal politicians simply must cloak their politics in faith. When a conservative politician with clear religious convictions talks about the forces of evil, however, they break into metaphysical paroxysms because they worry that the politician might really believe the stuff. At least one left wing pundit, Bill Maher, has admitted as much. Last year, he said he suspected that President Obama is really a “secular humanist.”
I don’t know what the President privately believes in his heart. But we have good reasons to think that some politicians are less than sincere when it comes to religion. Consider this: eighty four percent of the public claims a religious affiliation. Sixteen percent of the US population identifies as religiously unaffiliated, agnostic, or atheist. In contrast, not one member of the US Congress claims to be religiously unaffiliated, agnostic, or atheist. 97.5 percent of Congress identify as either Christian or Jewish.
Is Congress more religious than the American population as a whole? Probably not. It’s more likely that politicians, liberal and conservative, understand that most Americans are religious and so feel pressure to profess the form of faith even if not its substance.
To take an obvious example, Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, staunchly defends abortion rights and same sex marriage, both of which contradict settled Catholic teaching. For Catholics, unrepentant, active participation in abortion is grounds for excommunication. It’s hardly outrageous to question the sincerity of her Catholic faith, or least its consistency.
The translation of theology to politics is tricky business. People of faith should not be in the business of pronouncing judgment on the private beliefs of politicians, including those they disagree with. That’s why it was a good idea last week for Franklin Graham to clarify his remarks and apologize to the President.
But public policy choices are another matter. Given the incentives for politicians to appear religious, we should focus far more on what they do in office, and far less on what they profess to believe. Christians can honestly disagree on policy, but not all policies are equally consistent with Christian beliefs. Pointing that out is fair game in political debates.