Anita Perry's outburst last week that her husband, an outspoken evangelical running for the Republican Presidential nomination, was being "brutalized" by his political opponents "because of his faith" is a bit difficult to make sense of. Governor Perry is reported to have entered the race at urging of his wife who had a clear sense of God's calling for her husband.
Faith convictions and affiliations have long been considered fair fodder in American politics. In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama's relationship with his pastor Jeremiah Wright was a major media and political focus. The question of whether Milt Romney's Mormonism makes him unelectable haunted his campaign both in 2008 as well as presently. Michelle Bachman, a long-time Lutheran, appears to have changed churches just before launching her Presidential bid, supposedly to avoid association with the publicly controversial positions the earlier church had taken. The religious association of American political candidates seems to matter for them all.
This space is not adequate to sort through the complexity of these issues but there are some lessons to be heeded for those who advocate (as I do) that faith is a necessary and too-often-ignored part of public dialogue. The first is the misunderstanding regarding how our core faith convictions shape our behaviours and beliefs. We are all "people of faith." For most of the population, this faith is theistic; for some it is not. Understanding the core convictions of a leader is helped by knowing something about their basic belief systems, and the way they worship and the religious instruction they listen to.
But while faith should not be privatized, it does have private and public components that need to be distinguished. Candidates should be able to openly share their faith affiliations without having to fear a "guilt by association" accountability for every misdeed that has taken place in that religious tradition. Also, it seems to me that their involvements in their religious communities are matters for them to disclose and should not be the focus of political coverage.
But that goes two ways. I get equally squeamish when a candidate for political office makes an appeal to the "calling of God" as their motivation for running. Every serious candidate I have met, regardless of faith, has carefully weighed their circumstances and the personal price that running for (and even more so winning) public office entails. Each pursues their politics with a sense of calling.
I also get unsettled when the implication is made that because I share candidates' faith convictions, I will automatically be voting for them. Competence and character matter as much as conviction, and there are many with whom I share convictions but for whom I could never in good conscience vote.
I don't follow U.S. politics closely enough to offer qualified opinions on the merits of Mrs. Perry's complaints. What I do know is that communicating a sense of entitlement and privilege with religious language is not the sort of faith in public life I am advocating.