McCain’s religious cluelessness

It’s rather charming. And it has led him to do a good, if unintentional, job at unmasking some of the nuttiness of the Religious Right.

“Prup” (aka Jim Benton), has some thoughts on John McCain’s relationship to religion, after the jump.

Prup’s view isn’t mine: since religion has been an important force in human society as long as there have been humans, I think it’s useful for politicians to understand something about it beyond knowing how to mumble their prayers and say “God bless America” at the end of their speeches. As Peter Berger famously said, the high religiosity of the American populace combined with the low religiosity of its governmental, academic, and corporate elites makes it an odd hybrid: “a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.” That’s an unstable mixture, and the Religious Right has gained power by exploiting the instability.

I’m an unbeliever, an anti-clerical, and a secularist myself, but also I’m enough of a multi-culturalist to think that sympathetic understanding is better than ignorant contempt.

Still, I can’t argue with Prup’s central point: after George W. Bush, it’s something of a relief to have a Republican Presidential candidate who doesn’t think he’s on a special mission from God and who doesn’t confuse his political objectives with the Divine Will. (Yes, and that goes for Jimmy Carter, too.) And Prup is surely right to say that McCain’s cluelessness is proving expensive both for him and for his allies of convenience among those he used to despise as “agents of intolerance.”

Prup writes:


I’m going to start this with some faint praise of John McCain. Not Hillary-type: I see very little that is ‘presidential’ about John McCain. But in one way he is typical of those who have occupied the White House. Like all previous Presidents except the current incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, and, possibly James Garfield, he is inherently a secular person. Like many who actually managed to win the White House, he may be a sincere believer, who lets those beliefs affect his actions and style. But he’s really as secular as have been most politicians, and when he makes a gesture towards the Religious Right, you can see a bright neon sign over his head, blinking off and on:

***”I Am Pandering”***

But I’m not praising McCain for simply being secular. I like McCain for being totally, charmingly, clueless about the Religious Right, a quality he has demonstrated equally when he has attacked them and when he’s pandered to them. He just doesn’t get it: an excellent quality in a potential President. He doesn’t get their ideas, their way of looking at the world, their use of language. He shows, repeatedly, he doesn’t know one preacher from another &#8212 not to mention being able to tell the difference between Pre-Millenarian Dispensationalists, “Name-it-and-claim-it” preachers, Reconstructionists, End Timers &#8212 and all the other varieties of TV evangelists and political pulpit-pounders.

That is, after all, the backstory to the ‘Pastor Disaster.’ No one really thinks &#8212 I hope &#8212 that McCain believes the horrible things that Hagee and Parsley preach. No, he was simply acting on the theory “preacher=votes=good.” And the reason it went on so long — and the reason for my title, is that &#8212 I’d guess &#8212 95% of political reporters are equally secular, equally ignorant, and have a policy of not questioning someone’s religious position unless they make the news otherwise. (Think back to how obvious a con Jim Bakker was, but no one would call him on it for years. I think the attitude was “Yeah, he’s talking nonsensical bull, but so are half the guys preaching on TV. How do we know if he’s deliberately conning people, or if he’s like the others, and really believes this crap.”)

(And I should say I am as secular as anyone, a convinced, if tolerant, atheist. However, I’m also someone who is fascinated by religion as a human activity, who enjoys watching the absurd disputes and theological wranglings, as well as being perpetually worried about the intrusion of religion into the public arena in wrong ways.}

But McCain’s innocence, combined with his much less likable arrogance, combined to do something that decades of writers &#8212 in blogs, in magazines, sometimes even in newspapers or on television &#8212 have failed to do, actually get people to concentrate on what these pastors are actually saying.

The arrogance is important. Another candidate &#8212 almost any other candidate imaginable &#8212 would have a staff member check out his instincts in seeking the endorsements of the Poisonous Pastors. He might have even suggested the staff member check out some ‘liberal’ blogs or writing, to see if an organization like JewsOnFirst or Talk2Action had anything ‘on’ these pastors &#8212 and they had plenty. At least when Sarah Posner’s articles in The American Prospect on each of them showed up on Google, he should have had them checked out. “But why should I need someone to check up on me? I’m the candidate.”

And so, the result of his blunder is likely to be far more important than the mere increase of his loss of Radical Religious support, which he was losing anyway. He’s thrown the spotlight on these two, and now it is obvious how ugly they are beneath their clerical make-up. And he’s opened the door to giving the same type of scrutiny to any “far-out” preacher: even a preacher who hasn’t been caught in bed with anyone. (Tim LaHaye, anyone? James Dobson?)

And, specifically with these two, Hagee had been remarkably successful &#8212 for a while &#8212 in attracting the support of many Jewish organizations, mostly ones that were both Orthodox and Likudnik in orientation. I think he’s lost that support, that the last prominent Jew not on the lunatic fringe to praise Hagee will turn out to be Joe Lieberman. (And how must it feel for him, going out on a limb for Hagee just before McCain chopped down the whole tree?)

And Parsley was &#8212 and will still remain &#8212 politically powerful, among his own listeners. But gone is his chance to affect a wider range of “Christian” voters. Before, his support was a plus. Now, if he gets behind a candidate, that candidate will be looked at very carefully. And no longer will his “Patriot Pastors” &#8212 he was involved with that group, but didn’t start it &#8212 be able to come so close to electing another Ken Blackwell.

So all I can say is:

“Thank you, John McCain. You have accomplished more towards slicing the influence of the farthest reaches of the radical right than have decades of civil libertarians, liberal or moderate Christians condemning the RR for usurping the very name ‘Christian,’ or bloggers whose purpose is to watch both RRs, the Religious and the Radical Right. I wonder how long it will be before you get the credit for this, or whether you’ll like getting it.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: