The last West Wing episode, “In God We Trust,” had my wife and I spontaneously applauding for the fictional Republican Senator from California and Presidential Nominee Arnold Vinick. If you didn’t catch it, you can BitTorrent the episode. Alda’s masterful performance of Vinick’s closing rant against the cynical use of religious piety in our public life was a breath of fresh air, and a nicely-timed shot across the bows of the Religious Right at a time when false piety and hypocritical exploitation of religious belief has never been more egregious.
Vinick’s rhetorical question about how Americans can expect to keep a separation of church and state if they demand public declarations of faith as a test for public office was right on point. It seems to me that perhaps the worst cultural result of 8 years of Bush will be the extent to which the president will have become accepted as a ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ leader. I find that trend extremely disturbing and harmful to the prospects of religious tolerance in this country. There is definitely an ethos at the highest levels of the ruling party that projects the message of “Gott mit uns” that is destructive to genuine humility before God. The very idea that a political leader can ever be a genuine religious leader is false.
The constant and pernicious temptation, possibly requirement, of political office is telling people what they want to hear. A president, no matter how popular, can seldom, if ever, afford to tell adherents what they need to hear, nor offer genuinely critical moral or spiritual guidance. Any president who tried would be considered intolerably presumptuous, at best. The tendency to sermonize is definitely present in Bush (it’s one of his most annoying characteristics to his opponents, and most endearing to his supporters); but while he many remonstrate those without faith, he will never do more than flatter the faithful. He will feed them coded morsels to show how he shares their beliefs, but he will not, and cannot, ever be anything more than a reflection of his co-religionists in any way that matters. He will mouth homilies as a display of his profundity and peity, but he will always use religion to court the worst in people, not the best; baiting an enemy gets votes, loving one doesn’t. A true religious leader can be politically effective, but cannot hold an elected office: can you imagine MLK as President? True spiritual leadership takes people where they don’t already wish to go. Other great religious leaders have been poltically effective, Gandhi, The Dali Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, none of who hold or sought secular office. They knew that a person of deep spiritual calling can only serve one master.
The presidency should not be a religious post nor require a religious test, no matter how informal, to occupy the office. Someday we will have presidents who are Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, Jainist, Shintoist, Buddhist, Wiccan, Scientologist, Gaian, and atheist. Do any of those hypothetical presidents make you cringe? Why? Do you harbor the idea that the president is a religious or spiritual leader? Do you fear what a president with certain religious convictions might do with the vast power we settle upon him or her?
Even some Republican commentators are becoming disillusioned with the disturbing legal and ethical extremes to which the Bush-Rove-DeLay-Frist axis of the Party will go in their quest to politically exploit the heart-felt beliefs of some people regarding the Terri Schiavo case. I wonder if JEB Bush is going to descend into outright outlawry to take custody of Terri to sustain the momentum of the nation’s Schiavo obsession. Of course, Terri might serve the cause just as well as a martyred victim, murdered by a corrupt cabal of secular activist judges.
In addition to the effect of this debacle on our legal system’s treatment of the right to refuse medical care, it has been a clear demonstration of some of the worst behavior one might expect in office and in the media if Americans continue to demand ‘spiritual’ as well as secular leadership from politicians. That is why Vinick, though being a Republican, would have my vote. He leaves his religion outside the door to the office he was elected to. That’s practice I can vote for. In Vinick’s own worlds, “If you have a question about religion, go to church.”
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