|ETTER TO BE Jewish or Catholic rather than evangelical if running for president anytime soon. At least that seems to be one inference of a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of 1,321 adults conducted in late June.|
And, for whatever it's worth, the Oval Office probably won't be used five times a day for prayer facing Mecca anytime soon.
- Fifty-four percent in the poll said they wouldn't vote for a Muslim for America's highest office.
- Thirty-seven percent said they wouldn't vote for a Mormon.
- Twenty-one percent said they couldn't vote for an evangelical, and
- Fifteen percent said they wouldn't vote for a Jewish presidential candidate;
- Ten percent for a Catholic in the Oval Office.
Beyond the acknowledgment that this ought to give Mormon and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (a known presidential wanna-be) significant pause, there isn't much more surprise here: Muslims aren't a big hit in America today, and yesteryear's underlying bias against Jewish and Catholic candidates has seemingly diminished.
But that "21" number ought to give evangelicals cause for reflection. When four out of the last five presidents have had some degree of evangelical commitment, it becomes apparent that the American populace is either weary of presidential faith or, perhaps, skeptical.
The most recent evangelical presidents and what we learned from them (in order of moral effectiveness in office -- least to greatest):
President Bill Clinton went to church every Sunday and made sure to wave his fat King James Bible towards the cameras. After he got home from church, however, he was having sex in the Oval Office with an intern less than half his own age and eventually lied under oath to save his own skin. He was impeached. What we learned: there is something reprehensible about a man who quoted the Bible so much during addresses but who also could turn around and steadfastly support pulling a baby four-fifths out of a womb and sucking its brains out. Oral sex with a girl just a few years older than your daughter and lying after you've sworn on a Bible not to is a bit, ah, unholy regardless of church attendance.Evangelicals in this country need to know that with the American public, integrity in office matters more than electability. Although no man is perfect, Reagan on the whole had such integrity matched with a Christian worldview. In lesser degrees, George W. Bush has the same. After that, the presidential curve flattens, and evangelicals by reputation start taking on massive hits. If it could be said that four out of the last five presidents were serious evangelical Christians, then can anyone blame a fifth of Americans saying they've had enough?
President Jimmy Carter was a Bible thumpin', Sunday school teacher from Plains, Georgia, who, after touting his Christian credentials in his presidential run, promptly led American into a malaise and who, incredibly, turned into a crotchety blame-America-first elder statesman. His profound faith, instead of bolstering his leadership skills, left him brooding. What we learned: Mr. Carter fooled a lot of Americans into thinking that the best antidote for a post-Watergate nation was a smiling evangelical who loved the poor and embraced Democrat values (like redistribution and abortion). And, it came as a surprise to some that there are different kinds of Southern Baptists -- apparently, some are liberal.
President George H.W. Bush was hardly an evangelical, but his son George W. would accept Christ and tout Jesus as his most influential philosopher before assuming the executive branch of government. The latter seems genuine in his faith, but his political brains -- Karl Rove -- is widely known as a man who knows how to push conservative religionists' buttons to get them to the polls (the first, but not the most important part of a presidency) without much of a plan of substance to keep them happy. What we learned: when you have both houses of Congress, promise to shrink government but then expand it with a growing deficit more than the Democrats ever dreamed of ... well, don't be surprised when your evangelical friends raise more than a single eyebrow. And, a strong economy doesn't necessarily win you favor with the populace, or with evangelicals.
President Ronald Reagan possessed a profound faith and called evil, evil. His presidency had a few small scandals but, on the whole, he did America proud by bringing the Soviet bloc to its knees without firing a shot. When he talked faith, he did it in the context of the Founders and helped America think she could be better than she was. What we learned: Christianity could be expressed in the public forum in a way that could inspire, and a private life could lend credence to the inspiring articulation.
Even so, after all this, wouldn't it be something to find out that Americans aren't really looking at presidents who tout their Christianity to discern whether they are fans of evangelical presidents, but to the general population who use the term to refer to themselves?
And, truthfully, what would they learn if they did that?
Matt Friedeman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary. Respond to this column at his blog at "EvangelismToday.blogspot.com."
More columns by Matt Friedeman