A Christian Nation
More than a year ago, and before the primaries kicked off, Beliefnet.com, a Web site dedicated to “inspiration, spirituality, and faith,” interviewed John McCain. The presidential hopeful claimed that the Constitution of the United States established a “Christian Nation,” a statement that caught my attention. As an avowed secularist, I rarely think about my “Jewishness.” Reading that statement was one of the few moments I did.
I was reminded of McCain’s statement several times, the first while on the road working on my current documentary, Jesus Politics: The Bible & The Ballot (www.jesuspoliticsthemovie.com). We were filming some Evangelical activists who supported Mike Huckabee. It was primary day in Florida and the group was saying a prayer before fanning out to the streets to wave banners, distribute leaflets, and urge passers by to vote. “This used to be a Christian Nation,” said the man leading the prayer. “It used to be that you could not run for office unless your were a Christian.” His wife referred to Obama as “a Muslim.”
I again thought of McCain’s statement watching the Al Jazeera English news report we feature this week on http://www.Executionchronicles.org. “It is a Christian Nation, ” said one agitated woman. “Obama is a Muslim,” another one said, “he befriends terrorists.” A young Obama supporter holding a sign for the Democratic candidate on the side of a road as a convoy of cars inched toward a Sarah Palin rally, expressed fear that “they will hurt Obama.” Thus the connection was established: “A Christian Nation” versus “a Muslim” Obama “who befriends terrorists.”
More than a year has passed between McCain’s interview and Palin’s rally in rural Ohio. For me, this extraordinary year is symptomatic not only of the threat in this country to Senator Obama, but also to the very fabric of our society.
John McCain knows very well that the Constitution never established the nation as a Christian one. Even the reference to God (never to a specific religion) was hotly debated among the Founding Fathers. Yes the majority in America has always been Christian, but the Constitution and the letters and documents of the Founding Fathers went to great lengths to ensure that this nation does not endorse one religion over another. At the time of the Beliefnet.com interview – indeed throughout his campaign – McCain has struggled to win the evangelical Christian vote. Viewed with suspicion by the Christian Right, he panders to them. He chummed up to the extremist Pastor John Hagee, an association he later had to rebuke when the pastor’s views and sermons came under media scrutiny.
His efforts to court the Christian Right culminated with his choice of Sarah Palin for running mate. Certainly Ms. Palin, a first-time governor of Alaska, was not chosen because of her experience but because of her faith. She is a devout evangelical. McCain’s campaign knew that with her ultra conservative worldview, Palin could energize the conservative base of the party and mobilize evangelical Christians. It was a Faustian deal, and now we can see the price that has to be paid, with ugly taunts and shameful rhetoric at rallies.
I spent more than five weeks and 4000 miles on the road filming Jesus Politics. Among the many things I learned was that the majority of divisive religious issues we’ve come to associate with the Christian Right were not raised by devout believers, but by the manipulations of conservative political activists, who are neither necessarily religious nor devout. Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and co- founder of the Moral Majority, told me how for years he was trying to get Evangelical Christians to form a conservative coalition united by opposition to abortion. He was looking for wedge-creating concerns that would motivate Evangelical Christians to become politically involved. Until the late 1970s he was failing. By the time Evangelicals woke up to help establish a new Republican coalition, it had little to do with abortion but with school desegregation legislation that they viewed as government intervention in their religious affairs.
A year ago Senator McCain, probably the candidate least associated with religion, began to talk about a “Christian Nation,” and the result of his efforts may be gleamed from this short Jazeera report. In such a diverse society as our own, the political use of religion can only be divisive. He who sows fear and hate will harvest only violence.
Throughout American history, political assassinations were attributed to “deranged”, ” lone individuals”. Rarely if ever the socio political nature of the act and its context is discussed. I hope we will never see such a “disturbed personality” emerge from the angry crowds that the McCain/Palin campaign manages to arouse. But if one does, the ultimate responsibility must rest with those who unleashed the genie of religion out of the bottle.