Melissa Rogers has a very interesting post today on what we have learned this campaign cycle about faith and politics. Here are some highlights:
We have learned that the media and others will no longer ignore the views of religious leaders who are pursued by the campaign or brought into the campaign in other ways. That’s basically fair. We essentially treat secular endorsers that way, and religious endorsers should not be treated differently, for the most part. That kind of scrutiny can go off the rails in a variety of ways, but the basic principle is sound.
. . .
We have learned that a candidate’s house of worship can become a political target and a media magnet. That is a serious problem, but that’s not to say that I don’t understand some of the reasons why we are where we are.
Moving forward, it seems to me that it would be better for all sides to take steps to remove the pastor and the church from campaign scrutiny: the candidate would do this by refraining from seeking the endorsement of his or her pastor (or otherwise bringing the pastor into the campaign); the pastor would do it by refraining from playing a role in the campaign; and the media and others would do it by stepping back from combing over a pastor’s sermons, calling church shut-ins and the like. If we could get that kind of gentleperson’s agreement on all sides, we would move toward a more healthy relationship between religion and politics.
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We have learned that many in the media and others do not understand the nature of the decision to join a church. The decision to join a church should not be taken as a sign that a person sees eye-to-eye with a pastor on all things. It's a much more complex decision that has to do not only with the pastor at the time but also with the church's programs and services, one's sense of spiritual calling, and the feelings and beliefs of one's family members. Further, one may disagree with a number of things one's pastor says, and still view him or her as an excellent pastor in terms of how he or she causes one to think, cares for the congregation, and ministers to it it in other ways. In short, joining a church is not like joining the NRA or Planned Parenthood, and we ought not regard these decisions as such.
We have learned that some people feel free to tell others what they should do or should have done regarding church membership. That's a problem. As I've said, this decision is complex, and it is terribly presumptuous for anyone else to assume that they know what it is like to stand in another's shoes in this context or to attempt to instruct them about what they should do about this kind of decision. We don't know, and we shouldn't say. Church membership decisions are between a person and God, and they ought to stay that way. In short, I'd like to get to the place where it is considered extremely inappropriate for a person to say what he or she would have done regarding the church membership of someone else or to attempt to instruct another person on this subject.
We have learned that some clergy of various political stripes have succumbed to the temptation of engaging in hardball partisan politics and personal attacks, even from the pulpit. That has not been pretty. But there is always the possibility for redemption for all of us, whether our sins are quite public or private. Thanks be to God.
We have learned that much of what is said in a religious forum does not translate well to a political forum. There are some dangers when the media and others pick some juicy soundbites from sermons and then suggest that they would apply in a particular way in the political realm. That may not be the case. To the extent religious leaders also aspire to engage in policy and politics, it is perfectly appropriate to ask about statements that have political implications, but we should not simply assume that statements made in a religious context have a particular policy or political meaning.
Read it all here (and then stay awhile--Melissa has a great blog on faith and politics).
In my view, the Democratic candidates are having these issues largely because they made their own faith front and center in the campaign. That made their particular faith decisions fair game for political commentary. As Melissa notes, the result has been collateral damage, and some type of "stand down" agreement makes a great deal of sense.