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Mourning and America | The Nation

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Mourning and America

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Unfortunately, Wilson's journalism does not always share the empathic strength of his book. This past summer, a few weeks before the publication of God's Funeral, Wilson wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times about Christian belief among potential candidates for next year's presidential race. The essay, "God as a Running Mate," reminded readers that the Constitution decrees the separation of church and state, and worried--scornfully--that Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been making speeches in which they "sound as if they would not be uncomfortable in an evangelical theocracy."

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Michael Joseph Gross
Michael Joseph Gross, a onetime seminarian and former speechwriter for Massachusetts Governor William Weld, is a...

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To support this overstatement, Wilson cited an Elizabeth Dole speech in which she confessed that she once kept God "neatly compartmentalized" but has since let Him take charge of her life: "It was time to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe--and God accepted my resignation." Wilson quoted a speech George W. Bush delivered in Houston that proclaimed "something was missing" in his life until he decided to "recommit [his] life to Jesus Christ." Finally, he described Al Gore's May 24 Salvation Army speech as follows: "[Gore] was signaling to the great moral majority out there that he is a True Christian. Not just someone who goes to church on Sunday but someone who, like his wife [Tipper], 'practices her faith and sees its power at work.'"

Eager to prove his obvious point that religion and politics are a tricky combination, Wilson ignored the questions that God's Funeral can help answer: Why are these politicians so religiously demonstrative? And what might be the consequences of their confessions? By emulating Wilson's attentiveness to the Victorians, but shifting the terms a bit, a contemporary observer of politics can see that America's emphatically Christian politicians are enacting a new drama of religious bereavement.

The first insight suggested by this method is highly speculative. Perhaps simplistic Christian rhetoric (such as the lines quoted above) conceals the heart's cries of men and women who know that they don't believe what they say they believe. One does not become Vice President, or Governor of Texas, or head of the Red Cross--much less President--by submitting one's resignation as master of one's own little universe. These candidates are probably sincere enough to believe they are speaking some version of the truth; they are probably sophisticated enough to know they're not telling the whole truth; and only their intimates know the degree to which they're on a nostalgia trip. After all, Bush can say he recommitted his life to Christ and still leave a lot undefined. Careful consideration of the context of candidates' rhetoric of faith, however, suggests that salvation jargon probably says more about voters' religious bereavement than about politicians' (the goal of a political speech is to sway voters, after all, not to unload the contents of a candidate's heart). And when candidates talk publicly about their personal faith, they address a painful state of religious bereavement in which many American Christians actually dwell.

That's an obvious and accurate analysis of far-right-wingers like Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer, who shamelessly play to fundamentalists' class resentments and self-pitying sense of social disfranchisement. It is more subtly and more unsettlingly true of mainstream candidates like Gore, Bush and Dole.

Pollsters say the United States is a believing nation. In May, Gallup reported that 88 percent of Americans say religion is "very important" or "fairly important" in their lives; that number has slipped only 7 percent since 1952. When asked if they attended a place of worship in the past week, only 40 percent of those polled said yes. And 62 percent of Gallup's respondents said they also think religion is losing influence in American life--a huge increase from 14 percent in 1957, when Gallup first asked this question.

These numbers imply that even if individual Americans still believe as they always have, the majority say their faith is not really rooted in a community of worship, and they perceive that their faith matters less to American society than it once did. (Gallup's poll sample includes people of all faiths, but the vast majority identify themselves as Christians.)

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