TOPICS : Using faith for political gains

Americans will choose a new president in less than five months, but the losers of this election are already clear — the sanctity of religion and the integrity of democracy. The latest evidence came late last month, when Sen. Barack Obama announced his resignation from his home church. Such an important decision should have been made purely for personal or religious reasons. Instead, it was apparently driven by political considerations.

As a practicing minister, I understand how painful it is for him to leave a church that has been an important part of his life for many years. It is the church in which Senator Obama was married, and it is the church in which his children were baptised. It is a place where he apparently found a community with his neighbours and with his God. But as president of the Interfaith Alliance, I also understand why Obama found himself in this situation. During the primary campaign, the major presidential candidates engaged in a frenzied rush to prove their religious bona fides.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign went on a self-described “faith tour” of South Carolina, based explicitly upon a verse from the Book of Esther. Senator John McCain got off the Straight Talk Express to pander to the religious right when he gave the commencement address at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. And Obama is equally at fault. Early in the race, his campaign set up a website to feature endorsements from clergy, despite the fact that tax law prohibits religious leaders from making candidate endorsements in their official capacities as men and women of God. The problem is not that these presidential candidates incorporated religion into their campaigns. The problem is that the candidates have used religion as a divisive tool, instead of a unifying power. Rather than printing campaign brochures featuring a picture of Obama in front of a giant cross with the words “committed Christian,” as Obama did, candidates should tell the Americans why, how, or if faith informs their policy positions.

If the Liberty Bell had not cracked in 1846, it most surely would have done so in 2008 thanks to the US presidential candidates. If the meaning of the Liberty Bell’s biblical inscription — “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” — is to ring true in America, no candidate for the presidency should ever have to resign from or join a particular house of worship in order to be a viable candidate for that high office.

To make such a decision for political reasons dishonors religion and disrespects the Constitution. It makes a sad statement about American politics and an even sadder one about American religion. Obama is at the centre of the storm, but all who wed religion to partisan politics share responsibility for this tragic development. For the sake of both religion and democracy, we must do better. Our country deserves an electoral campaign which treats religion with the same respect held by those who built the Liberty Bell. — The Chirstian Science Monitor