Like it or not, and the beautiful people don’t, the oldest impulse in our nation’s history is not going away.
The expression of religious faith by politicians, frightening as it may be in the nation’s newsrooms, faculty lounges and salons of the beautiful people, doesn’t scare most Americans at all. They understand that faith is the most fundamental guarantee of freedom, that faith is what put America here in the first place, and faith is what made possible everything that followed.
But our liberals have a case of the limberneck.
George W.’s celebrated answer an answer to a question posed by a reporter that Jesus Christ is the author of the guiding philosophy of his life continues to reverberate in the the presidential campaign. The answer, which baffled the inquiring minds of the media, won’t hurt him in the Iowa caucuses on Monday night. Iowa voters know what he’s talking about.
Some estimates put the number of evangelical, or born-again, Christians among Republican caucus voters of Iowa at 40 percent. The only quibble most of these Republicans have with George W.’s answer is that he identified Christ as a philosopher, and not as the unique Son of God, who is philosophy.
The objections that some of George W.’s Republican opponents have is that they didn’t think to say it before he did. Vice President Al Gore can’t be surprised, either, nor can Bill Bradley, who, though the prince of the smart set, was an evangelical Christian himself when he was a mere citizen of the less fashionable world of sweaty basketball arenas. Nor is Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose do-good Methodist faith is easily recognizable in her “politics of meaning.”
Al Gore, in fact, has linked his faith to his politics more closely than any candidate of either party. In a speech to officers of the Salvation Army an evangelical mission despite its public image as merely a place to donate old shoes and get a cup of coffee and a doughnut if disaster strikes the veep demonstrated that he feels at home in white as well as black pulpits.
“If you elect me president,” he said, “the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration. Faith is the center of my life. I don’t wear it on my sleeve.” But in discussing how he would put personal faith into Oval Office practice, he replied with an acronym familiar to Sunday-school scholars everywhere: “WWJD.” This is Sunday-school shorthand for trying to figure out “what would Jesus do.”
Still, the sneering coverage of George W.’s answer recalls the puzzled contempt that Jimmy Carter provoked when his faith, which is at the center of his life, was shamelessly manipulated and distorted in the news accounts of a generation ago. There was a willful misunderstanding of what Mr. Carter was talking about.
George W.’s easy, open discussion of his faith, like Jimmy Carter’s, illustrates the differences, often not understood, between cultural Christians, whom evangelical parsons call “the Easter Christians” for their rote obeisance to their inherited faith once a year, and the born-again Christians to whom faith is personal, consuming, often dramatic, and so exciting they have to talk to someone about it.
Hence the liberal limberneck. A columnist for The Washington Post, for example, was so upset by George W.’s Jesus answer that he demanded a theological explanation of why the governor couldn’t coherently explain his faith. If George W. was a preacher or a poet, he might have explained his experience as Billy Graham described his own discovery of “the sweetness and the joy of Christ” at a tent revival many years ago: “If some newspaperman had asked me the next day what happened, I couldn’t have told him. I didn’t know, but I knew in my heart that I was somehow different and changed. That night absolutely changed the direction of my life.”
The reporters and columnists might not be so baffled if they would take the trouble to ask the questions about things that really matter to their readers and viewers, instead of asking questions about the things that matter to their colleagues on the back of the campaign bus.
Once, many years ago, Martin Luther King granted me 20 minutes to talk about civil rights. His secretary made it clear that 20 minutes was all he could spare. At the 15-minute mark, I closed my notebook and asked: “Can we talk about Jesus Christ, and your theology?”
A smile creased his somber face. “I thought nobody would ever ask,” he said. He sent out for sandwiches, and two sons of Baptist preachers talked, about the things that never die, until the shadows surrendered to the night. I’ve never forgotten that haunting reply: “I thought nobody would ever ask.”