On a personal level, presidential candidates and religion have always made me queasy. I don’t think a president should give up his religious beliefs when he takes the oath of office. After all, they are a part of who he is and cannot be put into a blind trust. But neither should he use his position to evangelize under the guise of policy. Jimmy Carter, who was labeled as a “born-again” Christian, certainly kept his faith in the forefront, but he rarely, if ever, spoke of it outwardly and certainly not as glibly as George W. Bush does who throws around evangelical phrases as if he was in a revival tent.
I do not begrudge Mr. Bush his faith. However, having been raised in the Episcopal church and then becoming a convinced Quaker, I am leery of evangelism. Spirituality is a deeply personal thing and goes far beyond rituals and iconography. To speak of “making Jesus Christ your personal saviour” sounds more like a pitch from an insurance salesman, and when people stop you on the street or ring your doorbell in an attempt to bring you to the Lord, it sounds more like they’re doing out of desperation – like they’re trying to meet a sales quota. (I have a friend who once emptied a revolver over the heads of some poor Jehovah’s Witness who had the misfortune to ring his doorbell the morning after his house was burgled. My most memorable encounter with door-to-door evangelists was when a couple of neatly-pressed Mormon teenagers showed up when my partner and I were working in our front yard. When the “elders” asked if they could tell us about their church, my partner said, “Sure, as long as you let us tell you about being queer.” They made a hasty exit.)
I think the American people are likewise circumspect when it comes to outward professions of faith. We may be the most church-going country in the world, but we have also – so far – been able to keep religion out of the halls of government and vice-versa. No serious presidential candidate has suggested that we repeal the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. The majority of Americans have rarely considered a man’s faith in choosing their president; it wasn’t even an issue since none but nominal Protestants ran for the office until 1928 when Catholic Al Smith ran against Quaker Herbert Hoover. By the time JFK ran in 1960 it hardly seemed to matter to most people, and Kennedy deflated the issue by taking it head-on, promising to resign if he ever faced a dilemma between his office and his faith.
As a nation, we have come to the conclusion that it is not what a person believes but how he puts his beliefs to action that are the true measure of his faith and his character. That is what makes him worthy of our trust and stewardship.