The Common Good

Religious tensions in the White House race

Date: August 26, 2008

The punch line rocketed around the World Wide Web, inspiring smiles in pews friendly to Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee.

The Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners saw a campaign button based on this one-liner and, on the "Interfaith Voices" public radio show, said it was a fine response to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's jab at the work of "community organizers."

Donna Brazile -- who ran Democrat Al Gore's 2000 White House campaign -- saw the same gag and, on CNN, quickly linked it to the Bible's message that "to whom much is given, much is required."

But this cyberspace one-liner finally made the crucial jump to YouTube when Rep. Stephen Cohen, D-Tenn., took to the House floor to remind conservatives that "Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus. ... Pontius Pilate was a governor."

Cohen later emphasized that "I didn't and I wouldn't compare anyone to Jesus. ... What I pointed out was that Jesus was a force of change." But the apology came too late to douse the fiery rhetoric raging on talk radio and weblogs.

In particular, the sound bite used by Cohen and others captured the rising tide of religious tensions in this White House race. This conflict has been heightened by the powerful role played by religious liberals in Obama's groundbreaking outreach efforts in a wide variety of sanctuaries.

The Illinois senator is, after all, an articulate, proud member of the denomination -- the United Church of Christ -- that has in recent decades boldly pushed mainline Protestants to the doctrinal left on issues such as gay rights, abortion and the tolerance of other world religions. His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, is an outspoken Catholic whose progressive views have often placed him in dangerous territory between his political party and the Vatican.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, used to be an Episcopalian, and married to a beer-empire heiress -- the very model of a mainline Protestant gentleman from the 1950s. Then he started visiting Southern Baptist pews while mending fences on the religious right. Finally, McCain shuffled the 2008 deck by naming Palin -- an enthusiastic evangelical mother of five children -- as his running mate.

This move rocked the pews on both sides of the sanctuary aisle, but Palin's ascension has caused an unusual degree of shock, anger, dismay and distain on the secular and religious left.

The political weblog Instapundit summed up the mood on the cultural left with this headline: "She's the freakin' Antichrist, I tell you!"

For author Deepak Chopra, a superstar in the spirituality marketplace, Palin is, quite literally, the anti-Obama. She is a living symbol of all that is wrong with small-town, parochial, ignorant, reactionary Middle America, especially with her "family values" code language that opposes expanding doctrines of civil rights.

"She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses," he argued at The Huffington Post. "In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness and suspicion of 'the other.'"

Obama, however, is "calling for us to reach for our higher selves," said Chopra.

The ultimate irony is the GOP's assumption that Palin will appeal to women just because "she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies," argued religious historian Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

"Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman," she wrote in an "On Faith" essay for The Washington Post. "She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working-class women."

But can anyone in the current political atmosphere top the Palin-as-Pontius-Pilate smackdown? University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs, offered Salon.com his best shot.

When it comes to faith and politics, the values of McCain's "hand-picked running mate, Sarah Palin, more resemble those of Muslim fundamentalists than they do those of the Founding Fathers. On censorship, the teaching of creationism in schools, reproductive rights, attributing government policy to God's will and climate change, Palin agrees with Hamas and Saudi Arabia rather than supporting tolerance and democratic precepts.