Religion and American Politics: Three Views of the Cathedral
76 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2008
Date Written: October 2, 2008
The relationship between religion and politics in the American social and constitutional structure is a subject of endless contestation. Much of that discussion, taking place as it has in an academic environment, has had a decidedly abstract air. In this paper, I shift the focus from the abstract to the practical by looking at the central participants in the debate over religion and politics: the political candidates themselves. I offer a close reading of speeches by three of the most prominent political candidates to offer an examination of religion's role in politics: John F. Kennedy, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama. A close reading of these three speeches reveals much common ground, but also a good deal of change and, I argue, progress in the terms of debate, although that progress is incomplete.
The overall movement in the speeches is from a strategy of avoidance, practiced most notably by John F. Kennedy, in which minority religious candidates are welcomed in the public square but religion is rendered a private matter for both candidates and voters alike, to one of engagement and inclusion, in which both religious candidates and religious arguments are increasingly accepted in the public square. Each of the modern candidates examined here achieves only a partial marriage of inclusion and engagement. Mitt Romney pursues a strategy of inclusion in which religious views are permitted in political debate, but seeks to foreclose any genuine engagement with religion. By contrast, Barack Obama offers a thoughtful engagement between religion and politics. But he prescribes a rule of dialogue in which religious individuals are required to speak in publicly accessible terms, thus precluding the total inclusion of religious individuals in the political process in their own voices.
In contrast to all three, I argue here for a model of genuine inclusion and engagement, in which religion and openly religious arguments are welcome in the public square but also subject to critical inquiry and disagreement. The model of inclusion and engagement may be messy, but it is also the fairest and best approach to the relationship between religion and politics.
Keywords: religion, politics, John F. Kennedy, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama
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