Hide it under a bushel? Yes!
Americans are growing tired of overt religious speech in the political sphere. This is great news for American Christianity.
Two years ago, 37% of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll said that there was “too little” religious expression by politicians; 29% said there was “too much.” As a poll released last month shows, these numbers have flipped. For the first time since October 2001, when Pew began asking this question, more of those polled (38%) said that politicians engaged in “too much” religious expression. Thirty percent said they did “too little.”
The data should not be taken as a sign of rapidly increasing secularization. With one important exception (more on that in a moment), Christians across the board think the amount of politicians’ religious speech is excessive. The data instead show that we may be moving out of an era in which Christian identity has been cheapened through its inclusion in the political–consumerist matrix and into an era of quieter reflection on the mysteries of the faith.
This is what I hoped could happen when I argued in my 2009 book, Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity, that American Christians should keep faith hidden in the public sphere in order to preserve that identity’s integrity. If Christian identity is just another brand loyalty, then it is pointless.
In the book and in my writing since then, I was not optimistic that politicians would start concealing their Christianity unless American Christians stopped rewarding politicians for exploiting it. The results of the Pew study suggest that, for whatever reason, a shift has occurred in voters’ minds. I hope that it is because American Christians are tired of the pandering and the perversion of their faith.
Perhaps American Christians are ready to heed the words of the second-century Letter to Diognetus: “As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.”
In the Pew poll, one demographic was a statistical outlier: white evangelicals. Not only were they the group least likely to think there was “too much” religious expression in politics (only 14% said so), but they were also the only group that did not exhibit increased dismay over the prevalence of religious expression by politicians. Moreover, in several states where white evangelicals make up the core of the Republican Party, a solid majority of Republican primary voters told pollsters that it was important that a candidate share their religious commitments.
With white evangelicals’ favored candidate, Rick Santorum, now out of the running, and with neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney likely to draw enthusiastic support from them, evangelicals will likely get less attention from the candidates. And with other Christian groups now less interested in hearing professions of politicians’ faith, we stand a decent chance of seeing a presidential campaign season in which Christian identity is not the rope in a tug-of-war. Christian identity can be more about faith than focus groups this time.
Jonathan Malesic (PhD, University of Virginia) is associate professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently working on a book offering a theological work ethic for postindustrial, post-Protestant America.