Taking the Lord’s name (sorta) in vain

Hey, aren’t all these Christian candidates supposed to be praying in closets instead of on television?

Ted Cox is a Sacramento writer and graduate student in religious studies.

Who would Jesus nominate? That question, more than any other, seems to be the most important for the presidential candidates as we head into the primaries this month. Taking their cue from President George W. Bush, who declared Christ his favorite philosopher in 1999, both Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to one-up each other as they court favor with religious voters. With millions of evangelicals’ potential votes up for grabs, the flock of the faithful is one demographic the candidates cannot ignore.

Sen. Hillary Clinton started her overtures to the religious late last year when she hired faith specialist Burns Strider, lead staffer of the Democratic Party’s faith working group, which was formed to help the party reach out to church-goers. Clinton has been pretty quiet about her Methodist faith, but she is making strides to reach out to evangelicals. At the annual Global Summit on AIDS at the Saddleback mega-church in Orange County, Clinton quoted her favorite Bible verses and received a standing ovation at the end of her speech.

Sen. Barack Obama also has hopped onto the faith bandwagon. Raised by a non-religious mother and an atheist father, he joined the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and eventually took the title of his second book, The Audacity of Hope, from a sermon by the church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. At the end of his 2007 Christmas ad, seated with his family in front of a Christmas tree and stocking-adorned fireplace, he turns to each of his daughters. The older one says, “Merry Christmas,” then the younger one says “Happy Holidays.” Cue the obligatory spontaneous smiles.

But while the Democrats reach out to “faith voters,” the Republican candidates scramble to out-church each other.

Mormon Mitt Romney’s campaign is hindered by his having been born in into a faith—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—that many evangelical Christians label a cult. Last month, Romney’s widely publicized “Religion in America” speech had two purposes: to assure evangelicals that he was, indeed, a Christian, and to assuage fears that his presidency would be unduly influenced by Mormon hierarchy in Salt Lake City. In fact, he mentioned the word “Mormon” only once during his address, but certainly assumed that religious faith was prerequisite for office, in spite of the Constitution’s prohibition of religious tests.

Then there’s Rudy Giuliani. Last November, he received a peculiar endorsement: Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, a former presidential candidate himself and a powerhouse of the religious right, pronounced him fit for office. This political alliance is unusual because Robertson, noted for, among other things, accusing feminism of encouraging “women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians,” has thrown his support behind a cross-dressing, adulterous, twice-divorced supporter of gay and abortion rights.

But don’t count out the ordained Southern Baptist minister in the crew, Mike Huckabee. In his Christmas ad, filmed in front of a suspiciously cross-shaped bookshelf, Huckabee reminds Americans that during this season, “What really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ.” Despite his 1992 assertion that AIDS patients should be isolated from the public, or that while governor of Arkansas he allegedly influenced the release of a convicted rapist, Huckabee has surged forward to become the leading Republican in Iowa, and in December, he said he would hang the Ten Commandments in the White House.

As transparent as these tactics are, it’s no surprise that the candidates are willing to do whatever it takes to get elected. But what is disturbing about this trend is that an enormous block of voters seem willing to ignore critical domestic and international issues to vote for the candidate that prays the loudest. These days, for a lot of Americans, wearing a cross and posing with arms stretched towards heaven provide the qualifications to run this country. After all, how much does an asinine foreign policy, accelerated climate change, a credit crisis and a tattered Constitution really matter, really, when Jesus is coming back any minute now?

Of course, by the end of the campaign, there can be only one president; that certainly means that, with so many contenders invoking the Lord’s name on behalf of their candidacy, most of them will have done so in vain.