Religious-Political Rhetoric: Where’s the line?

The religious rhetoric seems to be at an all time high in the political campaigns of Republican presidential hopefuls, and interestingly, there is no evangelical to be found. Rick Santorum, however, is filling in quite well.

Last weekend Santorum made a media splash when he criticized Obama’s “phony theology.” The firestorm of responses from the media and the public required Santorum to “clarify” that he wasn’t attacking Obama’s faith, but only his worldview, which puts the value of the earth above the value of humanity. You can be sure that his highly charged language achieved their aims, and his conservative base heard the statements clearly, further engraining their skepticism of Obama’s faith. Similar to a lawyer leading a witness (and the jury), it can be stricken from the record, but the damage has already been done. Even if stricken from the record through clarification, the intention to cast doubt on Obama’s faith, or orthodoxy-ness, has already taken root (especially given Santorum’s history of similar comments regarding Obama.).

It may be one thing to talk openly about your faith informing your political decisions. Turning the political debate into a theological debate is quite different and is more appropriate in an elders’ meeting.

The Huffington Post Religion ran a great piece earlier this week that highlighted the first presidential candidate attacked for religious beliefs, Thomas Jefferson. What was Jefferson’s response to the accusations of being an atheist and a heretic? For the most part, he simply ignored the accusations, believing that his policies, actions and leadership would speak for themselves. He felt his personal life (and personal faith) should be of little concern to the American people.

Faith is certainly an indicator of decisions a candidate will make in the Oval Office, but Jefferson may have had the better campaign strategy here. If Santorum has crossed a line with his religious rhetoric, it will ultimately cost him a presidential election primed for the Republican Party.

Dirty political campaigns, especially when charged with theological and religious rhetoric, make great news and even better SNL skits, so I’ll watch with eager anticipation if Santorum gets the nomination.

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