Friday, January 09, 2004

Religion and Politics

This is a pretty good essay in the WaPo.

Distorting a candidate's religious views is not a new hobby. In 1800, supporters of John Adams campaigned against Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that he was an atheist. He wasn't. He was a deist, a believer in a God not involved in current human events, but his views were easily caricatured. In his 2003 book, "The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America," historian Frank Lambert documents the smears, including one campaign diatribe that ran: "God -- and a religious president . . . or Jefferson and no God."

Imagine the TV ads that would run today against Jefferson -- a man who actually edited the Bible to cut out the miracles:

(Cue video)Two hands extend out of ruffled 18th-century sleeves. One hand grips a pair of scissors, the other a Bible. The scissors start cutting.

Voiceover: Thomas Jefferson says the Old Testament is full of "dung." He says the Gospels are a pack of "fabrications" put together by "fanatics."He seems to think he knows what should be in the Bible and what shouldn't be. Whom do you trust: Thomas Jefferson or the Good Book?

I recognize that if politicians exaggerate about everything else, they're likely to do the same with religion. I don't think Al Gore would really have approached each presidential decision by asking "What Would Jesus Do?" It's also hard not to laugh at the ham-handed way Dean telegraphed that he's starting to talk about religion mostly because Southerners seem into it. Some of this is totally fair game.

But picking apart a candidate's views on faith is a risky business. Every religion seems absurd to those who don't believe in it. Each person's spiritual path makes more sense to them than to anyone else. Distorting their spiritual lives for political or rhetorical gain is unfair to the candidates. For speaking openly about their faith practices, they should be praised, not pilloried.