Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Playing the game

It's hardly an original observation that in America, a presidential candidate must at least appear to be religious. There are discussions about church activity, meetings with prominent clergy, etc.

Details of that faith, at least within certain bounds, are less important. Joe Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew. Most voters don't know or care John McCain's denomination, whether their Senator is Methodist or Episcopalian, etc. There are some limits--JFK's Catholicism was seen as a problem to be managed, though Kerry's wasn't. However, the persistence of the "Obama is really a Muslim" canard--and make no mistake, it's meant as a canard--shows we still have a way to go.

But at least no one's hinting that he's actually a closet atheist. That, for Americans, would be beyond the pale. A sixth of the country describes themselves as atheist or agnostic, and yet no politician can be seen acknowledging them, let alone sitting down and talking with them. A candidate who admitted to having reservations about the whole God question, let alone one who said flat out he didn't believe in any supernatural deity, benevolent or otherwise, wouldn't make it onto the primary ballot, let alone to the election.

A column in today's Times reminds us that it wasn't always this way. During an age we think of as being very religious, there were prominent humanists who were listened to and taken seriously, and their endorsements were actively sought.

Of course, that was an age intoxicated with the idea of throwing off the ideology of the past, rather than clinging to the idea that only the magic sky-fairy can protect us from the Brown Menace.

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