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While doing research for our upcoming shows about religion and politics, I tracked down a 1980 advertisement for Jimmy Carter (above), which seemed to make a more explicit religious appeal than any campaign advertisement I’d ever seen before. Carter was one of the first modern politicans to make a big issue of his religious faith, and one of the few Democrats on the national stage to do so. Then today I ran across a radio ad for Obama, produced by the Political Action Committee Matthew 25 Network, which is also surprisingly direct in its religious appeal.

What do you think? Are you one of the 46% of Americans, according to the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life, who feels uncomfortable when politicians talk about their own religion? Or do you think we’re better off when both sides of the campaign are addressing religious values in the presidential election?


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4 Comments

Boy, I hadn't seen the Carter ad in some time. We first flagged this in our program for the last presidential campaign, "Religion on the Campaign Trail," and highlighted it in Krista's interview with Jimmy Carter. It's such a startling ad, even today.

But I think the campaign commercial that still blows my mind is the one of Kennedy having to tell the public that he wouldn't be divided between Rome and DC. That was only 50 years ago. Here it is:

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Boy, I hadn't seen the Carter ad in some time. We first flagged this in our program for the last presidential campaign, "Religion on the Campaign Trail," and highlighted it in Krista's interview with Jimmy Carter. It's such a startling ad, even today.

But I think the campaign commercial that still blows my mind is the one of Kennedy having to tell the public that he wouldn't be divided between Rome and DC. That was only 50 years ago.

My opinion is that Carter was truthful in his faith and in his desire to seek a higher guidance. Bush Jr., on the other hand, has used it as a political ploy for selfish reasons. That's a very big difference, and for some people it's difficult to assess, especially when it fits their own agendas.

Why such a coddling, piddly tone in the Obama ad? With the angelic cooing-- when the Left's faith is maybe anything but pie-in-the-sky-- it's over the top. (More, it's one of the few ads with a female narrator. Here, she's breathy, Sunday-school-esque, and maternal.) There's nothing piddly, meek, or sentimental about "feeding the hungry"-- we've been able to fight and win wars, while hunger and poverty have handily trounced us. If I didn't know his record, the tone might make me think, like Sunday school, Obama's commitment to "the least" may be periodic and token, instead of abiding, tough, and determined.

I wonder what the producers' decision to use this tone says about how people of faith-- I guess the intended audience, here-- and the quality of their hard-lived and won faith are viewed by the Mt25 Network and broader American culture. Why are appeals to people's religious ideals often airy and inoffensive, while appeals surrounding national security and terrorism are filled with strong, definitive language and fist-pounding? (Jeremiah Wright's fist-pounding prompted discussion of a more grounded religious practice, but was considered a demerit to quickly get beyond.)

Is there cynicism in play here-- in the relegation of the ideals, hope, and virtues which we take from and affirm through our faith to airy realms of song? (In favor of-- what?) And how destructive that all seems-- to sell out the best things we've known... Maybe having two separate worlds, in effect-- one airy and one in which you nearly hear the crush of metal; one with vague, referential language, one with clear language; one female, one male-- allows us in politics to express hurtful, proud, or divisive sentiments bookended with references to our religious ideals with less dissonance than we'd otherwise feel. There are many examples, the lowest fruit being the declaration of war pitched to the people with prayers and blessing.

I'm an Obama-supporter, but have the impression that these campaigns have little understanding of people's faith commitments, and less understanding of their power to actually realize peace, racial reconciliation, constructive support of the poorest, yes, and maybe even economic stability and a basis for rapprochement with our enemies. These ads undermine their power, sadly. And without understanding, I think it hurts us all to have these exploited for political gain.

The questions about cynicism and whether we have sold out remind me of 1Samuel 8, when:
[Israel] said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them... [But first] forewarn them, saying: you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves." [Israel persisted:] "No, we will have a king over us that we may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles."