Here we go again. It is that time again when aspirants to the White House, both Democratic and Republican begin announcing their intention to run for president in 2016, thus initiating a media circus featuring, on both sides, an array of supposedly God-fearing clowns, groveling before Evangelicals and prattling on about their belief in the Almighty and their certainty that if we just looked, we would find answers to all of our ills in the Good Book.
Of course, the candidates will cloak their true agendas – serving the fathers of corporate America far more zealously than Our Father who art (or art not as the case may be) in heaven – in pious patter about “family values,” or about the need to “restore America,” or about returning us to the state of divinely-granted exceptionalism that President Obama has so gravely squandered. This carnival season of unreason will end with the elections of November 2016, but its consequences – the validation of the idea that belief without empirical evidence is a virtue, and that religion – and especially Christianity – deserves a place in our politics, our Constitutionally-enshrined secularism notwithstanding.
But it does not have to be this way.
Of course, there will almost certainly be no declared atheist or even agnostic among the candidates. In all probability, the candidates will all be professed Christians of various persuasions. I, for one, find this to be scandalous, given that one out of five (20%) Americans claim to have no religious affiliation. Nonbelief is trending, and among a sizable, growing demographic. About 106 million Christians are expected to switch affiliation from 2010 to 2050, while only about 40 million people are expected to enter Christianity. The religiously unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics) are expected to see the largest net gains from switching, adding more than 61 million followers.
With that trend in mind, we should take a look at those who have announced so far, and what sort of religious views they hold. Let me start with the Republicans.
First, there is Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, who is officially a “devout” Christian (is there any other kind?), who now lists himself simply as “Dr. Rand Paul” (he’s an ophthalmologist). Paul finds it hard to see “God’s hand” in the suffering he encounters as a doctor, effectively dispelling the notion that a benevolent deity watches over humanity. Paul states: “As a teenager, I found that something was missing and decided that I would find that in Jesus. It’s something that – I tell people it didn’t always stick, either. I don’t know if that’s not – if that’s uh, blasphemy to say you have to be saved more than once, but I think sometimes it takes more than once for people. I’m also somebody who’s in science and medicine so it’s not always been easy for me to say, well, gosh, how do I see God’s hand in this horrible, horrible thing that I’m seeing; how do I see God’s presence in something – you see small children dying from brain tumors and this and that. Religion and faith isn’t always easy. But I always keep coming back.” Paul closed his announcement speech asking for “God’s help” in getting elected. Whether he meant it, we don’t really know, but we should care.
Next is Marco Rubio, the dapper senator from Florida, who is perhaps in the more disturbing category of Republicans whom we might charitably diagnose as “God-fearing.” Among the God-fearing candidates, Rubio stands out. He briefly dumped one sacred book for another, converting from Roman Catholicism to Mormonism and then back again to Roman Catholicism. Yet even as a flip-flopping, re-minted Roman Catholic, Rubio cheats on his church when he plays footsy with a megachurch in Miami called Christ Fellowship. One article that I read describes Christ Fellowship as a hotbed of demonology, exorcism, Young Earth creationism, and evolution denial, and is so intolerant that it demands its prospective employees to certify that they are not practicing homosexuals and do not cheat on their spouses. As regards evolution, Rubio confesses that he’s “not a scientist” (no fooling!) and so cannot presume to judge the fact of evolution on its merits, and holds that creationism should be taught in schools as just one of many “multiple theories” about our origins.
Though he munificently acknowledges that people such as atheists “have a right to not believe in God,” Rubio has called the Almighty the “source of all we have,” and, further, stated that “our national motto is ‘In God We Trust,’ which reminds us that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.” I guess that according to this logic, atheists and/or agnostics are not fully “American.” Rubio also believes “You cannot do anything without God,” which he terms “a profound and elemental truth.” I suspect that Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist known for his far more profound and elemental accomplishments in melding the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and, most recently, for publicly declaring his atheism, would beg to differ.
Then there is Ted Cruz, the most flagrant God-fearing candidate of all the Republicans. (Just ask him.) For starters, Cruz pandered profusely to the “faithful” by choosing to announce his candidacy at Liberty University, that bastion of Evangelical Christianity located in Lynchburg, Virginia. Once administered by the late Jerry Falwell, Liberty University promises a “World Class Christian education” and boasts that it has been “training champions for Christ since 1971” – grounds enough, at least in my view, to revoke the institution’s charter and subject it to an immediate quarantine until sanity breaks out in the insane asylum.
Let me digress briefly here. I have to wonder in Cruz’s case if the fruit does not fall far from the tree. For example, Cruz’s father, Rafael, is an Evangelical pastor, and a Christian Dominionist, who believes that the government should be controlled by Christians and that the only laws should be Biblical laws. Of course, that very idea violates the constitutional provisions that forbid the establishment of a State Religion. That kind of thinking may not be shared by Ted Cruz, but at least one of Ted Cruz’s own direr musings take his rhetoric to the next level, accusing gay rights groups of waging “jihad” (holy war) against Christians: “We look at the jihad that is being waged right now in Indiana and Arkansas, going after people of faith who respect the Biblical teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Cruz said. (Tell that to King David and King Solomon, both of whom had multiple wives). But such a statement prompts the question: If Cruz were to be elected, will he classify homosexuality as terrorism and dispatch gay “jihadists” to Guantanamo Bay detention camps? It would seem consistent with his statement.
During his thirty-one minute announcement address at Liberty University, Cruz peppering his talk with references to God, informed his listeners that he will restore a United States brought low under Obama’s maleficent reign by uniting “millions of courageous conservatives” who will rise up “together to say in unison ‘we demand our liberty!’” But, I have to ask: from whom, exactly? From what, precisely? Cruz does not say.
Cruz’s platform comes as no surprise. He wants to do many disconcerting things, including protecting Hobby Lobby and the pesky Supreme Court decision that birthed a plethora of Religious Freedom Acts such as the ones in Indiana and Arkansas; and saving the reactionary, contraceptive-denying Little Sisters of the Poor. He also, of course, aims to “uphold the sacrament of marriage.” (sacrament being a particularly Christian concept, not even held by all Christians). All of this will come not from Washington, he says. It will come “only from the men and women across this country . . . from people of faith, from lovers of liberty, from people who respect the Constitution.” Those are words that I can only describe as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” (Macbeth: Act 5, Scene 5).
And finally, there is Mark Everson, the sole Republican candidate unknown by almost everyone. That is not surprising. He receives virtually no press coverage. But Everson, a native New Yorker, has a record of sorts. He served as George W. Bush’s IRS commissioner. After he left the IRS, he ran the Red Cross – until an affair with a subordinate became public and he was forced to resign. That sort of thing might hobble a top-tier candidate, but not to a candidate whom no one could pick out of a police line-up. And then, finally, in his website’s “Letter to America” Everson does not even mention God! He has thereby doomed himself among the God-fearing faithful.
And what of the Democratic candidate(s)?
Well, there is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is (so far) the sole Democratic contender for the White House. Hillary Clinton announced by Twitter and a video, the first part of which was so bland I kept hoping and waiting for that tiny clickable SKIP THIS AD box to appear in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
Yet Hillary Clinton is a believer. We are told on her website, Faith Voters For Hillary that “her faith is deeply personal and real.” Not only that, but she claims to have grown up in a family who were elbow-to-elbow with none other than the Almighty. In her 1996 book, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, she and former President Bill Clinton were struck by the profound spiritual questions their daughter Chelsea and her friends raised and her deep roots in the United Methodist Church. “Religion figures in my earliest memories of my family,” Clinton wrote, and said that the family’s quest for spirituality was continual. “Our spiritual life as a family was spirited and constant,” she continued. “We talked with God, walked with God, ate, studied and argued with God. Each night, we knelt by our beds to pray before we went to sleep.”
Such a statement raises all sorts of questions for me. I do not mean to be dismissive, but I believe any rational person would ask them. For instance, what type of cuisine did God prefer? Did God use Cliff Notes while hitting the books with you? How was God in a debate? Did he, being God, simply smite with thunderbolts those with whom he disagreed? If she replies that she did not mean to be taken so literally, then what exactly constituted evidence of the Almighty’s presence in her home? Did she actually hear a voice respond as she prayed? Did she have visions? If so, did she consult a psychiatrist?
I can hardly wait for the likes of Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker to formally announce, but until that time, reasonable people can only contemplate a depressing, even infuriating, nineteen-month run-up to the election. Reporters should do their job and not allow any of these potential commanders-in-chief to get away with God talk without making them answer for it, as impolite as that might appear to be. Religious convictions deserve the same scrutiny as any other convictions, perhaps more. After all, they are essentially wide-ranging assertions about the nature of reality and supernatural phenomena. As always, the burden of proof lies on the one making the extraordinary claims. And if the man or woman carrying the nuclear briefcase happens to be eagerly-desiring the End of Days, or the Rapture, (as did one-time presidential contender Michele Bachmann) we have not only a need to know, but also a right to know.
So, if I were a journalist, here are some questions that I would ask the candidates: With the assumption that you accept the Bible in its totality, do you think sex workers should be burned alive (Leviticus 21:9) or that gays should be put to death (Leviticus 20:13)? Should women submit to their husbands, per Colossians 3:18? Should women also, study “in silence with full submission” as commanded in 1 Timothy 2:11? Would you adhere to Deuteronomy 20:10-14 and ask Congress to pass a law punishing rapists by fining them 50 shekels and making them marry their victims and forbidding them to divorce forever? Given that the Bible ordains genocide (as in 1 Samuel 15:3), will you work for the release of Father Athanase Seromba, the Roman Catholic priest imprisoned for his role in the mass Rwandan slaughter of 1994? Will you call on Congress to repeal the Thirteenth Amendment and reinstate slavery, since the Bible, in 1 Peter 2:18, de facto sanctions the horrific practice and demands that slaves submit to their “masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel?” Please clarify.
And then, specifically I would inquire:
Ted Cruz, will you denounce your father for his belief that America should be ruled by religious “Kings” like those in the Bible?
And Marco Rubio, will you please explain how your membership in the fanatical homophobic cult of Christ Fellowship has influenced you? In how much demonology do you believe? Has the Fellowship conducted any exorcisms lately? If so, have you taken part? If yes, please elaborate.
If any of the candidates have read Reza Aslan’s The Zealot (which I doubt) and laugh off my questions, telling me they do not take the Bible literally, I would ask what scriptural authority they can cite that permits them to disavow some parts of their holy book but accept others. The answer: there is none.
But I do have a dream. I dream of the day when a candidate (and future president) will say: “I do not consider it important whether I believe in the theistic God of the Bible or if I believe in a heaven or a hell. I do believe that we have but one life on our precious planet Earth, which floats amid a cosmic void of unfathomable dimensions, governed by the unyielding laws of physics. I will follow reason and promote consensus-based policies that will do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. I will work to build up Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state. Secularism and reason offer us the only way out of our dilemmas. We Homo sapiens have to grow up and realize that, barring interference from forces of nature beyond our control, everything we humans achieve, or fail to achieve, depends on us.”
As a former President of the United States notably said: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” (John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address)
We need a president who will acknowledge that. And we should settle for nothing less.