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When it comes to religious politicking, some really intriguing (and ominous) parallels are developing between McCain of 2008 and Kerry of 2004. Let’s start by looking at some of the things that Red John and Blue John share in common, shall we?:
An opponent who is the second coming of Faith and Values showmanship: Say what you will about George W. Bush, but his ability to connect with White Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mormons, was pretty darn impressive. In terms of lighting up houses of worship he is matched–and probably surpassed–by Barack “Let-Me-at-that-Pulpit!” Obama (who has the added advantage of being able to whip entire sports arenas into a frenzy).
An easily discernible discomfort speaking about religion in public settings: When describing what John Kerry looked like while doing God Talk, journalists nearly exhausted the English language’s ample stock of words for psychological and physical discomfort. Terms like “hesitant,” “halting,” “unforthcoming,” “rigid,” “cold,” “insincere,” “distant,” have also been applied to Senator McCain.
An easily discernible discomfort speaking about religion that belies deeper religious convictions: By no stretch of the imagination, however, are the Johns anti-religious or even irreligious (though Republican operatives in 2004 were eager to draw precisely these inferences about the Democratic nominee).
Rather–and this is crucially important, tattoo these words on your forearms (or elsewhere) if it helps you better ponder their significance–neither John hails from a religious tradition in which emotive, public displays of religion are normative. Their upbringing taught them to be strong and silent about the divine. Both were thus handicapped by dint of not being affiliated with Evangelical faiths that place a premium on testifying about God’s greatness in front of others. Put simply, they wouldn’t know how to do the God Talk that Evangelicals crave even if they tried.
An incredibly debilitating germ of a story that simply won’t cycle out of the media’s sickly body: John Kerry spent much of his campaign defending himself from “communion-denial” stories”. Wherever there was an archdiocese and a journalist, there was an article about why pro-Choice Kerry was on the outs with Bishop O’Reilly. (Postscript: Kerry has the distinction of being the only major Catholic presidential candidate who lost the Catholic vote).
As for McCain, wherever there’s an Evangelical leader and a reporter, there’s an article about how Pastor Tim is displeased with the guy. This week, for example, in an interview with the BBC’s Jamie Coomarasamy, Southern Baptist Richard Land likened John McCain to a “third-rate fireman” (though he admitted he would vote for him over Barack Obama, whom he dubbed a “first-rate arsonist”). The McCain’s-Evangelical-Woes story has legs, wings, a nuclear-powered engine and appeal to every major newsroom in America. McCain’s team might consider addressing this problem.
A disorganized Faith and Values operation: Kerry/Edwards 2004 provides a textbook illustration of how not to do religious outreach. Campaign higher-ups looked askance at this form of politicking for months. By the time the polls led them to reconsider, they set up an F and V shop that was small, under-funded, understaffed and by all accounts something of a total wreck (see the discussion of some of these points in the ninth chapter of Dan Gilgoff’s The Jesus Machine).
It is too early to pass judgment on McCain’s religious outreach, but if you read through the aforementioned Evangelical-Woe stories it is repeatedly claimed that not enough reaching out is being done.
Reaching out to the press, apparently, is not a strong suit either. A few of us at “On Faith” have spent the better part of the past two days trying to get someone, anyone, from the McCain campaign to answer a simple question: do they have a director of national religious outreach (or some comparable position) on staff and what is his or her name?
Unless they misunderstood us to be asking “who is on Senator McCain’s secret vice-presidential short list?” their unwillingness to answer an unthreatening question is puzzling. (We were eventually referred to a person in charge of Evangelical outreach).
Granted it’s a busy time of year. Granted The Washington Post is a media outlier serving a niche market of vegans and Left-wing alpaca breeders. But at present I can see no reason to doubt reports claiming that the campaign has no one in charge of overall religious outreach. (The Obama people, and up until a few weeks ago the Clinton people, have precisely such an operative on staff).
The truth is that Red John and Blue John are comrades in arms, martyrs to the cruel gods of American religious politicking. They are both war heroes who have failed to make the case that extreme sacrifice for one’s country is something of a religious virtue.
They are both inwardly religious men whose natural constituency would consist of people who are just like them: believers who find excessive entanglement between government and religion either unnecessary or inappropriate.
They are both incapable of reaching this potentially massive constituency. Most likely because it remains politically disorganized and leaderless. But also because Red and Blue John lack the vision to identify this group, pander to it, and win it over.
(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.)
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
June 19, 2008; 6:43 PM ET
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