God, the Selling Point

Whew! It was almost thought that Democrats were Godless. Many, including the president it seems, could not figure out why the word "God" was taken out of the Democratic platform.

In what was a spectacular feat of political repositioning for President Obama's reelection at the Democratic Convention, there were certainly many mentions of "God Bless The United States of America" as speeches concluded, as some evidence that God was hovering above the message of Democrats, though certainly not featured front and center.

Yet, while a bit shocking to many, it could be that there were a whole lot of faithful people of both parties who actually found this refreshing.

God, for many faithful people of both parties, is not a convenient sales tool. God is not merely a popular brand attribute. Faith may be the single most important focus of many lives, but one that remains an entirely private matter.

Turning a candidate's faith into a display item for mass consideration can be done in a way that appears truly in bad taste. Some even feel it goes fundamentally against our country's foundations.

Looking back, when the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1778, three religious issues were resolved. Not by chance, but by design, our religious freedoms were secured in the process as well, making us a uniquely religiously free place to live in the world.

At the convention it was first decided that there would be no religious test for a person who was intent on holding a public office; second, they allowed Quakers and others to "affirm" their commitments rather than be sworn in; and third, they decided not to recognize Christianity as the official religion of the United States of America.

By 1779, we had the law that defines our country's relationship to religion that we still rely on today.

Or do we?

What exactly is the media doing by drilling down on a candidate's faith? Why has the public come to expect a statement by a candidate about God's importance?

After all, which candidate's view on God could possibly be absolutely correct?

Are Americans now conditioned to buy only religious brands we trust? If we are not trying to figure out solutions to tough problems ourselves, are we really on a giant shopping excursion for a person who can do that for us?

In buying mode, people tend to go through predictable phases. Any seasoned sales person can tell you that first shoppers become aware of their needs, then they evaluate their options, then they resolve their concerns. People, if unconvinced of a need, will often not shop or even consider new options. While people are still evaluating their options, they cannot be rushed past their concerns. These phases take time. Despite all the selling that goes on, buying is not a passive act; purchasing is also going on simultaneously.

Once a solution is known, people shop predictably. If every six months one's pair of running shoes wears out and one has a trusted, proven brand, the next purchase will be fairly simple: a new pair identical to the old pair. No brainer.

If only presidents were that easy to shop for, we could rest easy with our decisions. But they are not. Presidents are harder considerations because circumstances change so much from one election period to the next. The "purchase" mindset can be extremely limiting when it comes to selecting a leader. Some can't even make it past their concerns and ultimately do nothing on voting day.

Some Americans argue that a pacifist president might be a concern to people who wonder if defense decisions could be swayed by personal beliefs in non-violence. But clearly, in times past we've elected two Quakers, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Would they stand a chance today in the upswing of Christian brand loyalty?

Some Americans argue that if we are at war with a small group of Muslim fanatics that a mainstream Muslim U.S. president might not be able to make decisions in the best interest of our country due to personal reluctance to fight against those of one's own faith, fearing that a president would be more sympathetic to fanatics than one's own homeland. It may be weak reasoning, but many use it, despite the fact that clearly Christian presidents have declared war on other Christian countries in our past.

Earlier this year, as we considered the possible Republican candidates, it seemed that religion was more closely being weighed than ever before. We had what appeared to be a highly outspoken, conservative Roman Catholic, intent on reversing progress on gay rights, one who was also very enthusiastic about blasting the daylights out of Iran, as well as two Mormons who at times appeared to have been morphed into Christian Evangelical conservatives.

At the same time, we quietly noted President Obama was no longer publically making his Christian faith a public debate issue and began worshiping more at Camp David in a more private setting.

While republicans seem to be flaunting faith and fusing their brand of politics with Christian conservativism as a popular, powerful lever for votes, many find that distasteful and against the most basic teachings of their religions.

Welcome to the era of "religitics."

It could be argued that any candidate cannot change being born into a certain faith system. But by the time a person is ready to step up and run for president of the United States, fully able to lead some 300 million diverse people, that a candidate should have formed his or her own unique opinions about God and state.

Perhaps women and minority voters will always be comforted to hear that their candidates either belong to race and gender inclusive denominations or disavow aspects of their religions that are discriminatory.

In reality, we try to use all the information we have to judge a potential president, but religion as a personal brand attribute can be a weak and unreliable predictor. Faith is not a constant for many people. Presidents, like the rest of us, move in and out of perspectives on God. Some of our presidents have been born into religions they later left, some were even considered "irreligious" and others have not had a declared affiliation. We have not yet had one who was willing to admit he was an atheist, if there truly was ever one in office.

Abraham Lincoln presided in uncertain times, times that really mattered to the survival of our country. We hold him up as an example of great leadership and courage. But on religion he said, "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession," according to Joseph Lewis.

In a letter to Judge J.S. Wakefield he later wrote, "My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them."

We have to wonder, with views like his, would Lincoln stand a chance of election today?