“There hasn’t been that much religious negativity during the general election,” someone commented to me recently. I think that’s generally been the case, and it’s a good thing as far as it goes. The anti-Mormon roar has quieted significantly, and there’s been barely any mainstream mention of the “Barack Obama is a Muslim” line.
Why might this be the case and what could it mean? Both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are decent men, and my guess is they’ve made clear to their circles that they’re not going to stand for attacks on the religious identity of their opponent. I also think that there’s an interesting similarity in Obama and Romney’s spirituality – faith has played a significant role in inspiring them to serve others. Obama has relied on his Christianity from the time he converted as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago through his term as president. And even as he was closing high-level business deals, Romney was involved in an intense ministry to his fellow Mormons as a leader in the LDS church.
But I think we ought to have higher standards for discourse about faith in a general election than “it wasn’t ugly.” The fact is America is the most religiously diverse nation in the world and the most religiously devout nation in the west at a time of global religious conflict. How America engages its own religious diversity, and how it encourages interfaith cooperation for the rest of the world, matter a great deal right now.
Here are two things that I wish would have been a more explicitly discussed in the campaign, and that become themes in the administration of whoever wins the White House:
- Evangelicals and interfaith cooperation in America. President Obama, as a liberal Protestant, has had pretty good relations with certain segments of the evangelical community, from progressives like Jim Wallis to people who are more center-right politically like Joel Hunter. Obama will get votes from younger, social justice-oriented evangelicals, but the Romney-Ryan ticket will get the bulk of the evangelical vote. This is no surprise if you look only at their more conservative policy stands, but it’s a shock if you consider that this is a Mormon-Catholic ticket that evangelicals will be enthusiastically backing. Urban liberals love to view evangelicals as a static monolith, but the truth is that they are a large, diverse and, at this time in history, very fluid community. Evangelicals are outfront on a set of social issues that resonate across the political aisle, from AIDS in Africa, to poverty in India to sex trafficking in Vietnam. I hope that whoever is president encourages evangelicals to continue building bridges with people that they disagree with theologically yet want to work with on issues relating to poverty and social injustice.
- Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam once wrote that the one thing we know for sure is that societies in the future will be more diverse than they are today. So here’s the big question: will that diversity turn into civic cooperation or civil war? We watched something akin to religious civil war in the Balkans in the mid-1990s, in Baghdad in the mid-2000s and in 2012 it looks like Syria is going this route as well. America, for all its problems with religious prejudice and hostility, is probably the world’s best example of religious diversity living in relative harmony. How can we lift up that example so it inspires other nations, even as they find models appropriate to their culture and history.
I had the honor of serving on President Obama’s inaugural faith council. I’ll never forget that first meeting in the Oval Office, where the president spoke of the importance of different faith communities – including secular humanists - joining with each other in service, highlighting that cooperation to the world, and inviting young people to both participate and lead such efforts. That guidance turned into, amongst other things, the president’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which my organization, Interfaith Youth Core, has run in partnership with the president’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Over 400 campuses have participated in the first two years of the program. I see every reason to believe that a first-term President Romney or a second-term President Obama would continue such efforts. I sure hope so. At a time when too many people see religion as a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction, we need the leader of the free world helping make faith a bridge of cooperation.