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Mourning and America | The Nation

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Mourning and America

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For many casually committed Christians, then, the mainstream politician who stands up and claims salvation must be somehow comforting. A sane, saved politician reassures them that faith matters, and that it's possible to be high-functioning and still speak the language of old-time religion. Lay people, particularly theological liberals, need such reassurance; it is hard for them to talk about salvation in a way that avoids exclusive formulations (I'm-saved, you're-not) that they don't believe in. Christian churches, by and large, have no honest language for describing "salvation" that the fundamentalists haven't hijacked.

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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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For 300 years, Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theater has been the center of ceremonial life at Oxford.

This is why George W. Bush's strategy of public confession has, so far, been brilliant. He has established himself as the "compassionate" conservative and has reiterated, early and often, his spiritual status as born-again. Now that he has comforted important supporters such as Pat Buchanan, the Truth has freed him to make speeches like the "slouching towards Gomorrah" scold. A more maverick George will be a more popular George for two reasons: Protestants need a certain amount of spiritual insecurity in order to feel comfortable (salvation through grace, but we "have to be good"), and secular voters (and secular-but-still-kind-of-spiritual voters) need reassurance that Bush is not a nut job; he's saved, but smart.

Bush knows that salvation rhetoric in political speeches functions like a tuning note, to prep Christians in the audience for singing along with a candidate's secular vision for society. As a practical matter, this rhetorical ploy is not harmful. (Gore, for example, plays his personal faith as a credential for his proposal to allow "faith-based organizations to provide basic welfare services" under the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform law. Regardless of what you think of this proposal, it's unlikely that it could morph our government into a theocracy.)

As a spiritual matter, the candidates' use of salvation rhetoric in political speeches is more troubling. There may be good reason for a decent person to be glad that a politician has found God. But any speech that suggests there is any important connection between faith and government service blasphemes spirits much holier than Ronald Reagan's.

Christian voters would be much better off if some saved candidate just told the truth: Religious faith does not matter very much in government. Loyalty to the Constitution will make government just, and, if you're a clever interpreter, it can make government caring. Loyalty to the Christian God will instill faith that expresses itself through love, a state of existence far too reckless to fit any politician's policy agenda.

Near the end of God's Funeral, Wilson profiles the American William James, whose achievement, he says, was to "[assert] as a matter of empirical fact that people had religious experiences which did not fit into any neat, scientific-materialist package of the universe." James "was trying to rescue, and assert the legitimacy of, an all-but-universal though infinitely varied set of human experiences. It is, he contended, these experiences which led to the growth of organized religions and theologies; not the other way about." Wilson's chapter on James is a hopeful conclusion to his survey of the nineteenth century. The great Victorians thrived on ruthless, self-imposed strictness of thought and belief. James was a transitional figure who restored honor to religious experiences the Victorians would not abide--experiences that did not make sense.

For Christians today, the power of religious experience as James defined it will almost always be political in a broad sense. People who express faith through love will incrementally change their communities for good. Religious rhetoric loses its power, however, when Christian candidates try to harness it to political rhetoric that advances their campaigns.

With not a hint of irony, Al Gore says things like this: "I call on the corporations of America to encourage and match contributions to faith-and-values-based organizations.... For too long, faith-based organizations have wrought miracles on a shoestring. With the steps I'm proposing today, they will no longer need to depend on faith alone." The God Question may not go away, but it does become incidental.

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