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Speaker Talks of Religion and the Various Effects It Has on American Electoral Politics
"The reason the Moral Majority gained traction in the '70s was because religion had no political voice up to that time," said local lecturer Susan Myers, adding that the movement's purpose was "not only to give their people a voice, but to get them to go to the ballot box" to express their religion through politics.
Over time, continued Myers, the Moral Majority's ties to the Republican Party helped pave the way for faith-based initiatives, and the confluence of federal money, political support and religion.
"That's a first in this country -- and we have George Bush to thank for it," said Myers.
Myers spoke recently at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, where she gave an informal lunchtime lecture titled "The Role of Religion in Political Campaigning." The event was held despite a lack of lights, air-conditioning or microphones because of storm-related power outages that week.
Myers has lectured at a number of area venues, and regularly teaches courses in world politics at local Jewish community centers and congregations, including Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
Though Myers' tour of religion in politics began with the founding of the country, the bulk of her time was spent discussing the past century. She touched on the revival-style campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, John F. Kennedy's Catholicism and the rise of the Moral Majority, before leading up to a significant amount of time focused on the current election cycle, calling it "very weird," but praising the diversity of primary candidates on both sides.
Discussing the candidacies of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (both Republicans), she said that Huckabee made very public his desire to bring the country in line with what he believed to be God's vision for America. While his candidacy was felled by Arizona Sen. John McCain, Myers pointed to the former governor's youth and broad base of support (particularly from evangelical voters) as reasons to expect that he would again appear on the national stage sometime in the future.
She also contrasted Romney's speech about his Mormon religion with that of John F. Kennedy's speech on Catholicism.
While Kennedy spoke directly to a group of ministers to reassure them that he wouldn't let the church run his presidency, Romney's speech (made more for TV cameras than for a live audience, noted Myers) went the other route, stressing his belief in Christian principles and "trying to allay the fears that Mormonism is an oddball religion."
Addressing the recent controversies over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ("What everybody's thinking about today when I say religion and politics," joked Myers), the speaker said that Wright's church was "not all bad, even if Wright's preaching techniques are very extreme."
She added that Wright's message was basically one of responsibility -- both to one's self and one's community -- though "unfortunately, the way he gets to that message is very hard for us to hear," she said, citing a "difference in culture" between some worship styles.
Myers also said that while the controversy over Obama's pastor differed from McCain's dealings with the Rev. John Hagee, whose endorsement the Arizona senator has rejected, "in many ways, there are similar connections, and the candidates had to separate themselves in similar ways."
On a personal level, Myers said that she felt it was never appropriate for religion and politics to mix, and that, once candidates start touting the importance of faith in their lives, "I find my discomfort level rises."
She was quick to point out that she found it just as "offensive" for Jewish politicians like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman to bring religion into the discussion as it was for Christian and other politicians.
Myers stated that it was much more important to her to know the candidates' goals for the country -- and how those goals would be achieved. "I don't need to know how many chapters of Torah he read this morning," she said of Lieberman.
After the 2004 election, in which many voters said they voted for President Bush because of shared values, many pundits questioned how Democrats would make a push for these "values voters" in the current election. Myers felt that Democrats had made some inroads thus far, but still had a ways to go.
"It's challenging for Democrats because the left wing of the party isn't as values-based, and the candidates try to be centrist," she said, adding that Democratic candidates had been talking more lately about values like family and what it takes to make it in America. Myers said that -- while no candidate was actually asking for her opinion -- she felt that Obama needed to focus more on his own life story as a way to connect with voters, similar to ground that McCain has already begun to cover.
She emphasized that values issues were not exclusive to the Republican Party.
"Democrats are the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, so they do understand these things," she said.
Despite her personal feelings, Myers noted that religion was a part of American life, and as such, was bound to play a part in our politics: "We need to know everything about our candidates today; this is part of the picture."
"Even if you take out religion, our political system is so encrusted with advertising, sound bites and PR people that it's almost impossible to find out what the person is actually like," said Myers. "So the burden is on us."