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Why Presidential Hopefuls Must Feign Religious Piety

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The 2012 presidential race is shaping up to be as much an old-time religious revival as it is a political contest.
Informed by consultants that more than 60 percent of American voters prefer candidates with strong religious convictions, Republicans and Democrats are boning up on their pious platitudes.

And that’s no easy task given the diversity of the field.

For instance, President Obama continues to be demonized as a closet Muslim. The audacity of reaching out to the moderate Islamic community has been seized upon over and over again by political opposition as proof that the president is pro-Muslim and therefore anti-Christian.

And just in case that line of argument fails, critics are quick to point out the president’s longtime membership in the Chicago church where Jeremiah Wright served as pastor.

Taped sermons of Wright speaking disparagingly about a white hegemony oppressing a black minority have become, in the hands of political operatives, President Obama’s position as well.

So much for the president being taken seriously as a Christian.

Meanwhile, the Republican faithful are having their own problems. Hollywood could not have produced a more convoluted plot.

For example, the Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is a Mormon – a religion viewed by many evangelicals as a cult rather than an authentic expression of faith.

The plot thickened in Texas recently as a group of high-powered evangelical leaders convened to endorse conservative Catholic Rick Santorum.

Never mind that 50 years ago evangelicals for the most part regarded Catholics as a religious cult rather than an authentic expression of faith.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the GOP primary race Thursday, talks about Jesus more than most preachers I know.

And Gingrich – raised a Lutheran, converted to Southern Baptists during graduate school, and now a Catholic – is like the Baskin Robbins of faith. If you don’t like today’s faith flavor, not to worry, it will soon change.

As a general rule I have never found political piety to be all that convincing.

It’s become just one more thing candidates have to do to prove their viability as candidates. To coin a phrase, there are no unbelievers in political foxholes.

And it’s not even about traditional religious beliefs. It is no longer adequate simply to talk about God in a meaningful way.

Voters who have their political antennae tuned to religious wavelengths will not be satisfied by nods toward mere traditional orthodoxy.

Belief in God must manifest itself in a commitment to a series of social issues that have come to serve as the real litmus test of a new orthodoxy.

Candidates can talk all they want about how much they love Jesus. But if that love of Jesus does not lead them to the right side of issues, such as homosexual unions, abortion, tax cuts, prayer in school and the Ten Commandments, it won’t matter how often they pray; they won’t have a prayer.

Unfortunately, the real loser in this political contest is the faith community. Trying desperately to be a player in the big game, many people of faith are willing to settle for token recognition about ultimate truths.

And far too often, while groveling over these tidbits of public recognition, the weightier matters of our faith – issues like poverty and violence and racism – are ignored or despised.

I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ is really in the kingdom.”

JamesL. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.