In presidential politics, not all religions are created equal

From a strictly legal perspective, nothing could be clearer. There is no religious test for public office in the United States. De facto, however, things are a lot murkier, especially when the office in question is the presidency. Is there a de facto religious test for the presidency? And if there is, whom does it exclude?

It is certainly difficult to imagine anyone who openly professes atheism or agnosticism, or a religion other than Christianity, getting very far as a presidential candidate. At one time the same could be said of Roman Catholics, and while John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960 appeared to lift this religious test, there has not been another Catholic president since Kennedy. In the 2008 campaign, rather than Catholicism, three other Christian expressions were at issue: Mormonism, the black churches and straight-up evangelical Christianity. Let us consider each of those in turn.

Mitt Romney and the Mormon dilemma
Mormons have not quite shaken the sense that they are outside the American religious mainstream. Logan LDS Temple, Utah.

There is no more thoroughly American religious group than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons as they are commonly known. They have an American prophet in Joseph Smith (1805–1844), the upstate New York farm boy whose visions formed the basis for the new church. They have an American scripture in the Book of Mormon, which Smith claimed to have found on gold plates near his home and translated from the “reformed Egyptian” with the help of divination tools. They have a sacred story that takes place largely in the New World and features migration to the Americas by ancient Israelite refugees and a post-resurrection New World appearance by Jesus Christ. They have an inspiring modern American story as well, centring on their Great Trek westward to the promised land of Utah. By and large, contemporary Mormons not only preach but practise wholesome family values. Many of them have been successful in the worldly pursuits of business and politics. Their church is wealthy and growing rapidly. So what’s the problem?

Mormons have not quite shaken the sense that they are outside the American religious mainstream. Their American prophets, scriptures and sacred stories are not recognized by the rest of the Christian world, and Mormons differ from other Christians on a number of key theological concepts, including God, sin, grace and revelation.1 The Mormons’ history of discrimination is also frequently evoked: the Mormon priesthood was closed to blacks until 1978 (a point brought up against Mormon candidate Mitt Romney during his unsuccessful 1994 run for Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat), and remains closed to women. So is the secrecy of some Mormon ritual and the church’s closed, top-down decision-making. But if an authoritarian leadership style, patriarchy, a legacy of racism and beliefs that seem farfetched to the rational mind were enough to exclude a religious tradition from serious consideration, then few religions would be left standing.

Of a somewhat different order is the question of polygamy, encouraged by the LDS church for roughly two generations in the 19th century. The practice of plural marriage was formally repudiated by the main body of the church in 1890, a necessary prelude to Utah’s admission as a state and the Mormon church’s long march to respectability. Nevertheless, the practice continues on the fringes of Mormonism,2 and the popular association of Mormons with polygamy lingers. But no one seriously suspects Mitt Romney of being a polygamist or a supporter of polygamy.

Nor is there anything new about Mormons in American politics. In the early years of the twentieth century, Reed Smoot was a member of the LDS church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles as well as a Republican senator from Utah. When he first entered the Senate in 1903, Smoot had to undergo hearings to show that he was not a polygamist and did not encourage other forms of illegal behaviour. After the Senate voted to seat him, he went on to serve for 30 years and lend his name to the 1930 Hawley-Smoot tariff, widely credited with a key role in turning the previous year’s stock market crash into the Great Depression. Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration (1953–61), was later First President of the LDS church. George Romney, Mitt’s father, was Governor of Michigan, an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and subsequently Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon Administration. And yet, more than a century after the Smoot Hearings, the Pew Research Center found in 2007 that 25 per cent of Americans were “less likely” to vote for a candidate who was a Mormon.

Mitt Romney is a devout Mormon, and his faith is central to his life, but to the extent that it has come up in his political career, it was not by his own choice. Rather, he has emphasized his business acumen and managerial skill: Romney headed a private capital investment firm in Boston, was called in as CEO of the organizing committee for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and made the games a success, and has accumulated a fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Fresh from his Olympic triumph, he ran for governor of Massachusetts and won.

The only way for a Republican to be elected and to govern in heavily Democratic Massachusetts is as a moderate pragmatist, and by and large this is what Romney did. He was pro-choice on abortion, supported stem-cell research and signed into law a bill mandating a form of universal health insurance. But Romney had higher ambitions: he launched his presidential campaign almost immediately on leaving the governor’s mansion in early 2007. Running against two high-profile moderates, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain, he staked out a position on the right. As a presidential candidate he was pro-life and opposed to stem-cell research, and his opposition to same-sex marriage and civil unions took on a harder edge.

Unfortunately for his candidacy, many of the socially conservative voters he courted were evangelical Protestants. Mormons and evangelical Protestants are natural allies and have made common cause on “family values” issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But evangelical Protestants, especially Southern Baptists, have also expended the most energy in opposing the Mormons on theological grounds. Romney had to face this contradiction head on in Iowa, a state with many evangelicals. In October 2007, three months before the crucial Iowa caucuses, a Newsweek poll found that only 45 per cent of registered Iowa Republicans thought that the United States was ready for a Mormon president. In the end, Romney lost Iowa by a substantial margin to evangelical preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and by February his campaign was over.

Not all Mormon politicians are conservative Republicans. There are even Mormon Democrats, such as the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. But most Mormons are social conservatives, and any Mormon social conservative faces the same contradictions that helped sink Romney. Perhaps a very exceptional Mormon could be elected president, but Mitt Romney is not that Mormon.

Barack Obama and the perils of prophecy

Unlike my own Jewish religious tradition, which is intricately tied to specific cultures, Christianity proclaims its ability to take root in any culture. Thus, speaking in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, during his 1984 visit to Canada, Pope John Paul II could say that “Christ himself has become Indian and Inuit in you, his members.”3 However, once roots in a specific culture have been set down, Christianity becomes as bound up with that culture as the faith and practice of religious Judaism are with cultural Jewishness. Think, for example, of the traditional Roman Catholicism of Quebec, or of the Church of England.

In the vestibule of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a painting by Joseph W. Evans depicts a family – husband, wife, and two children – with an image of Jesus hovering over them. All of the figures are black, and the sign underneath reads, “We are unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.” Evans comments, “Members of the family have differing complexions, representing the rainbow that is the Black race. They are the rainbow, the promise of our future. They look the viewer in the eye, unashamedly … unapologetically.”4

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, shown here with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, March 10, 2005. Obama on Friday March 14, 2008 denounced inflammatory remarks from his pastor, who has railed against the United States and accused the country of bringing on the Sept. 11 attacks by spreading terrorism. (AP Photo/Trinity United Church of Christ)

Trinity United is not affiliated with one of the historic black denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church or the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Rather, it is part of a primarily white mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, with roots largely in New England Congregationalism. Within that denomination, it has become the largest single church, and it has been singled out as a model for the black church and an example of the ways in which a black church can serve as a vibrant presence in the community. When Ebony magazine compiled a list of the 15 greatest black preachers in 1993, Trinity’s longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ranked second. The magazine noted,

“Wright … represents,” one respondent said, “the first of a new generation of African American preachers who blend Pentecostal flavor with social concerns in their pulpit discourse.” A fellow preacher said, “He gives a contemporary, African-American, Afrocentric flavor to the traditional Black shout.” A religious scholar said, “A Wright sermon is a four-course meal: Spiritual, biblical, cultural, prophetic.”5

In his 1999 study of the social impact of the black church, sociologist Andrew Billingsley described the preaching, prayer, music, education, cultural awareness programs, community outreach and financial and organizational strength that underlay Trinity’s growth and success.6 From the time Wright was elected pastor in 1972 to the 1990s, Trinity grew from 87 members to more than 6,000.

This is, of course, the same Trinity United Church of Christ in which Barack Obama found his spiritual home, and the same Rev. Jeremiah Wright who became a pariah after some of his more passionate sermons came to media attention. From among the millions of words that Wright has uttered from Trinity’s pulpit, he became identified with just three: “God damn America.” And Obama was able to contain the damage to his campaign only because he could tell the world that he was not in the church when Wright uttered those words. Can the two Trinitys and the two Wrights – the exemplary black church and pastor of the Ebony survey and the Billingsley study on the one hand, the church with the pastor whose sermons, in the inimitable phrase of Pat Buchanan, “are saturated in black-power, anti-white racism and anti-Americanism”7 on the other – be squared?

Of course, a cultural-religious synthesis looks very different from the outside than from the inside, and elements of that synthesis, taken in isolation, don’t travel well. So it is with Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, and especially with sound-bite excerpts from those sermons. Another difficulty is associated with one of the words used by the religious scholar quoted in Ebony to describe those sermons: prophetic.

Prophecy is often confused with prediction, and while there is prediction in the writings of the biblical prophets, that is not their main characteristic. Rather, what separates prophets from religious leaders of other sorts is their claim to speak directly for God. Because they speak for God, they make little or no effort to tailor their words to the desires of their audiences. Their message is often one of fierce denunciation of the injustices of their time. Here, for example, is the prophet Amos on the regime of King Jeroboam II, who reigned in Samaria, capital of Israel, and in secular terms was a very successful ruler:

Proclaim it from the palaces of Ashdod

And from the palaces of the land of Egypt

And say, “Assemble on the hills of Samaria

And behold the great disorders inside her

And the acts of oppression in her midst.”

For they do not know how to do right

– says God –

They who cram their palaces with violence and extortion.8

In the memorable phrase of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one the most astute modern students of their work, the prophets employ “notes one octave too high for our ears.” He notes our lack of a common language with them: “To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful.” Heschel began his study of the prophets by describing them as “some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived.”9

Disturbing to those in power and the population at large, often dangerous to the prophet himself or herself – such is the prophetic vocation. And while according to traditional Jewish belief prophecy was an ancient phenomenon only and ceased more than two thousand years ago, in terms of temperament and style the prophetic vocation has continued, and those who have taken on that vocation have continued to disturb and upset.

With its emphasis on fighting injustice, the prophetic vocation has found a home in the black church, and it has been taken on with singular gusto by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The distinguished church historian Martin Marty, one of Wright’s professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has written, “At the university, we used to remark, half lightheartedly, that this Jeremiah was trying to live up to his namesake, the seventh-century B.C. prophet.”10 In what became his most notorious sermon, Wright was in full prophetic flight:

Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West … The British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!11

In his television interview with Wright, Bill Moyers asked the pastor what he thought when he saw “very brief sound bites” from his sermons circulating in the media. Wright replied that he felt it was unfair, untrue and unjust, and that those using his sermons “were doing it for some very devious reasons.” When Moyers asked, “Such as?”, Wright said,

To put an element of fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of Americans who still don’t know the African-American church, know nothing about the prophetic theology of the African-American experience, who know nothing about the black church, who don’t even know how we got a black church.12

The outrageous statements in Wright’s sermons come with the prophetic territory, as does the vilification to which he has been subject. But what about his most famous congregant? Where does Barack Obama stand in relation not only to Jeremiah Wright (from whom he has now distanced himself) and Trinity (from which he has now resigned), but to the prophetic theology of the black church?

Martin Luther King

Obama’s activist approach to religion has its roots in the prophetic message. “I am a big believer in not just words, but deeds and works,” he told Newsweek. Second Isaiah, who insisted that Temple sacrifices be backed up with feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, was on the same page. But Obama does not have the prophetic temperament or style. As a general rule, that style doesn’t work in politics. Jeremiah Wright said it succinctly: “He says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. Those are two different worlds.”13

Because they happened to be delivered exactly 45 years apart, a number of commentators measured Obama’s acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention in Denver on August 28, 2008, against Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the march on Washington on August 28, 1963. But the two are incommensurate – as Wright said, two different worlds.14 King’s was a prophetic speech, Obama’s a political speech. The biblical echoes and cadences of the black preacher that filled King’s speech are absent from Obama’s. There may well have been an element of political calculation in that: Obama needed to appear grounded and substantial, not inspirational, for the fall campaign. But it also reflected who Obama is. And perhaps that persona – rather than his masterful speech on race or his resignation from Trinity – was the main factor in limiting the damage from the Jeremiah Wright sound bites. Guilt by association with a prophet doesn’t easily stick to someone so inherently moderate as Obama.The black church seems alien to white America both because of its prophetic theology and because of its blackness. To become a credible presidential candidate, Barack Obama, a Christian who came to spiritual maturity within the black church, had to play down both of these elements.

Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and the evangelical base
Mike Huckabee speaking at Healthier US Summit

In his accompanying article, Gregory Baum provides a guide to the landscape of American evangelical Protestantism, which can be confusing to an outsider. The confusion is political as well as religious, for as Baum notes, while evangelical America has been a major element in the conservative Republican ascendancy since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, not all evangelicals are politically conservative.

Indeed, the quintessential evangelical politician of an earlier era was a radical Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. At the 1896 Democratic convention the 36-year-old former congressman delivered an eloquent – and, in the sense in which I am using the term, prophetic – speech denouncing the gold standard. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” he thundered; in another biblical allusion, he said, “If protection has slain its thousands, the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands.” The speech carried Bryan to his party’s nomination, and he went on to sweep most of what are now the Republican “red states.” However, he lost today’s Democratic “blue states,” and the election, to his Republican opponent, William McKinley. Of the 22 states carried by Bryan in 1896, Republican George W. Bush carried 21 in 2004; of the 23 states carried by McKinley, Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry, carried 17. Cultural and religious loyalties last longer than political ones.

Bryan won the Democratic nomination two more times – and lost two more elections, on each occasion carrying only the Old Confederacy and a handful of other states (all of them now red states). He served as Secretary of State in Woodrow Wilson’s first cabinet, and spoke widely on the Chautauqua circuit, primarily about religion. In his later years, he campaigned for Prohibition and against Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he believed would undermine morality. Shortly before his death in 1925, he was a leading prosecutor in the trial of John Scopes, the Tennessee teacher accused of violating that state’s law against the teaching of evolution.

Another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, came out as a “born again Christian” during his successful 1976 run for the presidency. But the political terrain in evangelical America had already begun to change. The “southern strategy” that helped win the 1968 presidential election for Richard Nixon and the lasting allegiance of the South for the Republican Party was initially focused on racial issues, but it had religious and cultural implications as well, and it meshed with broader demographic and social changes. “The ‘country and westernization’ of American culture,” Martin Marty has written, “has found its religious counterpart in the northward seepage of evangelical styles … The new prosperous Evangelicalism did not just appear out of nowhere. It has roots that are tangled with many other subterranean forces. It has branches that entwine with non-religious branches under the Southern sky.”15

Coming to political maturity in the Reagan era, evangelical Christians played an important role in electing Republican majorities in Congress between 1994 and 2006. In 2000, evangelical support was crucial in winning the Republican presidential nomination for George W. Bush – the “compassionate conservative” who promised to allow “faith-based” organizations to administer social programs – against his chief rival, John McCain. McCain defeated Bush in the New Hampshire primary, but the next major contest, in South Carolina, turned largely on the “entwined branches” of southern culture and religion – along with an ugly smear campaign against McCain. Bush’s victory in South Carolina was a turning point in the campaign, which eventually brought the Texas Governor to the White House.

Running for the presidency again in 2008, McCain took careful steps to shore up his standing among evangelicals, and especially his credibility as an opponent of abortion, a key evangelical issue. But he and the other early front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, could not match the evangelical bona fides of Mike Huckabee, whose sudden popularity was the first of the campaign’s many surprises.

Huckabee is not George W. Bush, a politician who happens to be a conservative Christian. Nor is he Rev. Pat Robertson, whose 1988 presidential campaign was an extension of his ministry and designed to make a point. Huckabee is preacher and politician in equal measure, an ordained Baptist minister who spent a decade serving two Arkansas churches before entering politics and spending another decade as governor of Arkansas. He combines the standard evangelical positions on abortion and homosexuality and scepticism about the theory of evolution with a streak of economic populism – not to say eccentricity, with his support for a scheme to replace the entire tax system with a single national sales tax. Add his sense of humour and his rock band, and to a segment of the Republican electorate, he was irresistible.

Unfortunately for Huckabee, that segment was not large enough to win him the nomination. Nevertheless, after his surprise victory in Iowa, he won primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee and caucuses in Kansas and West Virginia, and was the last major candidate left standing against John McCain. The relative success of his low-budget campaign was a signal that evangelicals remain a force to be reckoned with in the Republican Party. When McCain, having clinched the nomination, suggested that he might choose a pro-choice running mate, the outraged reaction was another such signal. Eventually McCain, still not entirely trusted by the evangelical base, listened to those signals.

Perhaps nowhere in the campaign did a religious test operate more clearly than in the selection of the Republican candidate for vice president. The choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin indicated that a strong evangelical faith – expressed in her links with two evangelical churches, Wasilla Assembly of God and Wasilla Bible Church – and correct positions on social issues mattered more than economic, foreign policy or national security credentials. Best of all, Palin not only took a strong stand against abortion but put it into practice, choosing to give birth to a Down syndrome child, her son Trig, earlier this year. She was everything the evangelical wing of the party could have wanted.

Well, almost everything. Palin hardly fits the old cultural ideal of the stay-at-home mom, supposedly favoured by conservative Christians. She conforms more to the contemporary model of Supermom, barely taking time out from her high-powered job to give birth to Trig. The revelation that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol is pregnant appeared to be an additional blow to Palin’s status as social conservative hero. While there was a widespread feeling (expressed by Barack Obama, among others) that Palin’s private life should be kept out of politics, social conservatives’ emphasis on traditional morality and Palin’s blanket opposition to sex education made it difficult to separate the two. People also remembered the speech by an earlier dubious Republican choice for vice president, Dan Quayle, attacking the TV show Murphy Brown for its positive portrayal of out-of-wedlock childbearing. The revelation of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was accompanied by an announcement that she and her boyfriend Levi Johnston, also 17, would marry, but comments on Johnston’s MySpace page (“I don’t want kids”) cast doubt on that part of the story. And yet delegates to the Republican national convention, and millions more across the United States, lapped it all up.

The choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin indicated that a strong evangelical faith mattered more than economic, foreign policy or national security credentials.

Survey data from the 1980s and early 1990s showed that the vast majority of evangelicals upheld traditional attitudes on issues of homosexuality and abortion, but that there was much more movement away from those attitudes on premarital sex and women working outside the home. Sociologist of religion Mark Shibley divided the survey data by region and age.16 Among evangelicals over 40 in the South, 95 per cent agreed that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is always or almost always wrong”; this figure declined only to 81 per cent for evangelicals under 40 outside the South. Similarly, on the question of whether a woman who became pregnant as the result of rape should be able to obtain an abortion, 80 per cent of older evangelicals in the South, and 71 per cent of other evangelicals, said no.

However, the percentages of younger evangelicals who categorically disapproved of sex relations before marriage were only in the low 40s, while the statement that “women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men” gained agreement from only 18 per cent of younger evangelicals outside the South, and 25 per cent of younger evangelicals in the South. Given the generational element in these trends, they have almost certainly intensified since these data were collected. In other words, the particular cultural-religious synthesis embodied in Sarah Palin resonates deeply in evangelical America. In an odd sense, her rough-around-the-edges family, on full display at the Republican convention (complete with the unfortunate Levi), is a better representation of contemporary “family values” than Barack Obama’s more conventionally perfect family.

The Palin Bounce that dominated the campaign in early September, until it was overshadowed by the financial crisis, was a complex phenomenon, with no single cause. But a dominant sense among those who greeted Palin’s nomination with enthusiasm was that “she is one of us – and he is one of them” – again, the blunt wording is Pat Buchanan’s.17 Religion plays into this us-vs.-them modality in at least two ways.

The racial dimension of us-vs.-them is largely expressed in code, but it did not escape anyone’s attention that Palin, like more than 90 per cent of delegates to the Republican convention, is white, while Obama, like only 2 per cent of Republican delegates, is black. The convention’s racial profile also characterizes evangelical America. “In traveling to interview white evangelicals,” noted sociologist Michael Emerson, “I was repeatedly struck by the racial homogeneity of their worlds. Their friends, neighborhoods, churches, schools, supermarkets, television shows – all were overwhelmingly white.”18

A corollary of this racial homogeneity is evangelicals’ failure to recognize racial inequality as a structural problem in American society. Again this failure was mirrored at the Republican convention, where Mike Huckabee’s allusion to “the shameful evil of racism” was noteworthy because it was so rare. While not expressing racist views themselves, white evangelicals, in line with their individualistic theology based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, are much more likely than other Americans to see racism as an individual problem, and to advocate solutions based on individual actions and personal relationships. There is a widespread belief among white evangelicals that as people convert to Christianity, racism will disappear. And while black evangelicals share many religious beliefs with white evangelicals, they are far more likely to seek structural explanations and solutions for racism. “Ironically,” wrote Emerson, “it is the converted who are most divided on issues of race. This is due, not to a lack of power of the Christian faith, but to the cultural constructions of that faith in the context of racial isolation.”

In addition, for many Americans evangelical Christianity – “that old time religion” – is familiar and comfortable. Buchanan, himself a conservative Roman Catholic, characterized the churches Palin attends as “mainstream,” in contrast to Trinity United with its anti-white, anti-American pastor. In other words, those churches pass Buchanan’s religious test. However, just how far Wasilla Assembly of God stretches the concept of “mainstream” would soon emerge. A video began to circulate of a 2005 speech at Wasilla Assembly of God by Bishop Thomas Muthee, a visiting Kenyan pastor known for driving a suspected witch out of the town where his home church is located. In this particular speech in Wasilla, Muthee urged Christians to “infiltrate” key areas of secular society such as finance, education, media and government.

And while Barack Obama could plead that he was elsewhere when Jeremiah Wright delivered his “God damn America” sermon, there is no doubt about Palin’s presence during Muthee’s speech. Toward the end of the video, Palin appears and Muthee “anoints” her in preparation for her run for the governor’s office. In a June 2008 speech at Wasilla Assembly of God, Palin described the experience of being anointed by Muthee as “very, very powerful.” According to Bruce Wilson of Talk to Action, a website that monitors the religious right, Wasilla Assembly of God is associated with a movement called the Third Wave or the New Apostolic Reformation, which believes all existing Christian denominations are invalid and is “one of the most aggressive movements in the push to tear down the wall between church and state.”19

While Palin’s evangelical affiliations were widely reported, details of the beliefs and activities of the churches she has belonged to have not received the same mass circulation as sound bites from Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. And once again, in late September, it is too early to judge the ultimate impact of these beliefs and activities. But returning to the question with which we began, we can give a clear answer: yes, there is a de facto religious test for the presidency of the United States. Or rather, there are a number of religious tests, applied differentially across the electorate. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama were all subjected to such a test. And how they acquitted themselves of it mattered considerably in their ultimate success or failure.


1 The question of whether Mormons should be considered Christians is a subject of ongoing debate (for Mormons, the question is whether non-Mormons should be considered Christians). Historian Jan Shipps, a prominent non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism, maintains that Mormonism is a separate religious tradition that developed from within Christianity in much the same way as early Christianity developed from within Judaism. To an outside observer, not all the differences are to the disadvantage of Mormonism. For example, the Mormon interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve is free of the troublesome Christian conception of original sin.

2 See Daphne Bramham’s articles in Inroads, Summer/Fall 2005 and Summer/Fall 2008.

3 “Meeting with Native Peoples, Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, September 18, 1984,” retrieved September 2, 2008, from here.

4 In Jeremiah Wright, ed., Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian, booklet (Chicago: Trinity United Church of Christ, 1986), quoted in Andrew Billingsley, Mighty Like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 174.

5 Ebony, November 1993, p. 157, quoted in Billingsley, Mighty Like a River, p. 175.

6 Billingsley, Mighty Like a River, p. 183.

7 Patrick Buchanan. “The Palin Firestorm,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 9, 2008.

8 Amos 3:9–10.

9 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (1962; New York: HarperCollins Perennial Classics, 2001), pp. 12, 10, xxi.

10 Martin E. Marty, “Prophet and Pastor: To His Former Professor, Congregant, and Friend, Jeremiah Wright Has Been Both,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2008.

11 Sermon tape played on Bill Moyers Journal, April 25, 2008. Transcript retrieved April 29, 2008, from: here.

12 Bill Moyers Journal, Transcript, April 25, 2008.

13 Newsweek, July 21, 2008, p. 32; Isaiah chapter 58; Bill Moyers Journal, Transcript, April 25, 2008.

14 A transcript of King’s speech can be found at; and of Obama’s at here. Retrieved September 22, 2008.

15 Quoted in Mark A. Shibley, Resurgent Evangelicalism in the United States: Mapping Cultural Change since 1970 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), p. 23.

16 Shibley, Resurgent Evangelicalism, pp. 120–24.

17 Buchanan. “The Palin Firestorm.”

18 Michael Emerson, “Faith that Separates: Evangelicals and Black-White Race Relations,” in Michael Cromartie, ed., A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), pp. 187–203.

19 Bruce Wilson, “Buzzflash Interview with the Palin Churches Research Team,” retrieved September 24, 2008, from here.