It seems odd to me, though not necessarily a bad thing, that we hear so much about faith everywhere nowadays. Everyone wants to talk about their spiritual journeys, their prayer lives and the diets they’ve developed from these transformed lives. Good people (religious leaders like the Dalai Lama, the Pope and Kirstie Allie) and even very bad people (terrorists, Karl Rove) want to talk about their beliefs.
No politician can keep their faiths to themselves, it seems, for to do so is to alienate an apparently vast voting bloc of believers that no one worried about before the 1990s. In fact, when Jimmy Carter spoke openly of his devout faith while running for president in the 70s, most everyone looked askance. It was if we were embarrassed to have found ourselves privy to his private business. Ronald Reagan pioneered the exploitation of the so-called “religious right,” and did so successfully without ever actually defining his own religious life. No public “going-to-church” shows for Ron and Nancy on a Sunday morning; if they even went to church, it wasn’t ever a photo-op.
Religion and politics hasn’t really become more comfortable, it’s just become more unavoidable. Among our most recent political figures, the most at ease and articulate about his faith has been Bill Clinton, who could quote scripture like the Baptist bible-camper he probably was as a youth. And, we know how actually pious he turned out. Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, when a candidate in 2008, was never that comfortable.
Like Al Gore and John Kerry before her, she was earnest and oft-spoken about church, but never well-spoken, or, unfortunately, convincing. Lots of “ums,” and ‘ers,” and “of course, my faith informs…” Kerry, famously, was both a devout and seriously dedicated Roman Catholic, which he wanted values voters to know; but he was also insistent that he would not be influenced by the church, which would matter to secular democrats. As in everything, while trying to be all things to all people, he managed to be very little to very few.
Not that the apparently very religious George W. Bush was any more convincing or articulate (“I’m sorry, your favorite philosopher is…Jesus?”). He was just unrelenting. Regardless of the fact that religious-conscious voters overwhelmingly supported Bush, it wasn’t his rhetoric that swayed them, it was a platform designed to appeal to those voters.
In the last campaign, John McCain was of the “um, er, sure, God is great,” school, while Barack Obama managed a convincing faith…which still blew up in his face. John Edwards was convincing as well, but…well, we know how that worked out.
Faith, if not religion, is on everyone’s mind. Oprah is quietly and effectively building a public faith through her vast media empire that may soon eclipse all other religious groups in influence. Oprahism seems to be a populist mix of Christianity, positive thinking and new-age feel good–a sort of wish-based esotericism that appeals exactly for the lack of actual effort required of the believer (“Send it out to the universe…”).
And what was once and not long ago uncomfortable, is now everywhere. Tom Cruise, John Travolta and others are intensely devoted to a religion discovered by a pulp science-fiction writer. Madonna and Roseanne have championed the eons-old Jewish mystical practice of the Kabbala, Larry King communes with the Dalai Lama and new-age rabbis, and every sports team now prays publically before broadcast sporting events. And, if both teams pray, does it mean that the winner prayed better?
You’d think that bona-fide religious types would be comfortable enough with their faith to speak of it without appeal to the modern ear, but mega-popular mega-church pastor Joel Osteen preaches to millions a message of happy-talk, prosperous Christianity without going out of his way to talk too much about Jesus.
I guess my point, if I have one, is that more talk about faith doesn’t automatically equate with more actual faith; in fact, public talk about faith may exist in direct inverse proportion to the true depth of faith of the population. Something like 98% of surveyed Americans believe in angels, around 86% of them assert a belief in prayer, and about 8% of those go to church (unless they’re running for office). Does that mean anything? Ask the Kabbala, I don’t know.
If I were trying to make sense of any of this, I wouldn’t have a prayer.