Faithful Politics

By Lilly Fowler

In Salon this week, Michael Scherer has a piece on a Democrat’s run in the state of Tennessee. According to Scherer, Harold Ford Jr. “hopes to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction by appealing to religious voters.” Scherer tells us that Tennessee is home to “the most white evangelicals in the nation.”

One assumes, then, that political strategists had these folks in mind when they decided to make Ford’s religious upbringing a significant part of his ad-campaign. Or when, according to Scherer, Ford asked for not only votes but prayers throughout a debate with Republican opponent Bob Corker.

Or, could it be that Ford has no one in mind when he speaks about his faith? That, perhaps, he is simply being himself?

Questioning someone’s religious convictions isn’t something journalists do generally. Scherer is no exception, and Ford is hardly the first politician who has not been asked to explain his faith. For years President Bush has benefited from the press’s timidity. And from time to time, people have taken notice of the lack of coverage.

As Ayelish McGarvey pointed out in her excellent American Prospect article “As God Is His Witness,” “the mainstream press has trod lightly, rarely venturing beyond the biographical to probe the depth, or sincerity, of Bush’s Christian beliefs.” Only recently—now, especially, with the release of a memoir by David Kuo, a former employee of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives who details his disappointment with the lack of effort and sincerity involved in the project—have descriptions of Bush’s religiosity as calculated and hypocritical become more prominent.

Part of the problem is that faith’s slippery nature makes it difficult for reporters to ask good questions about the spiritual life. Scherer, for example, writes about the concern some churchgoers have about Ford’s record on abortion, but he also goes on to say that many simply want someone who “speak about their faith.” In an environment where an anti-abortion stance can be seen as part and parcel of living as a Christian, it can be difficult to determine whether, when scrutinizing the sincerity of one belief’s, we’re even looking in the right direction. Does Bush’s stance on abortion or gay marriage make him a Christian, or is an individual’s faith of a more unquantifiable nature? If so, it isn’t hard to see why journalists have had a difficult time with all of this.

Some may argue it is the private nature of religion that creates obstacles for reporters, but politicians like Bush or Ford have opted to publicize their faith. And they’ve benefited from it. Bush carried the state of Tennessee in the last presidential election, and today, Scherer reports, Ford is closing in on his opponent.

A writer like Scherer should question a candidate’s religious authenticity if for no other reason than it can affect the way people vote. Some, such as Kuo, maintain that a candidate can be both calculating and earnest. In his memoir he writes, “George W. Bush, the man, is a person of profound faith and deep compassion for those who suffer. But President George W. Bush is a politician and is ultimately no different from any other politician, content to use religion for electoral gain more than for good works.”

He also says, “millions of Evangelicals may share Bush’s faith, but they would protect themselves—and their interests—better if they looked at him through the same coldly political lens with which he views them.” Journalists like Scherer should join evangelicals in this effort.

Lilly Fowler is a graduate student at the University of Southern California.