Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's Starting Up Again

I always get a kick out of remembering a story from the days when Martin Luther King, Jr. was actively engaged in his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. At one point, Dr. King was arrested for a traffic violation in Georgia, and under the cover of night, he was transferred from the city jail to a state penitentiary, a very dangerous circumstance. This was during the 1960 presidential campaign season, and Dr. King's wife, Coretta, appealed to John F. Kennedy's staff for assistance. Then-Senator Kennedy made a phone call or two and Dr. King was released from prison.

The funny part of the story occurred when Daddy King -- Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. -- made a point of telling his congregation what had happened, and that he recommended they support JFK in the upcoming election, "even though he's a Catholic!" I find the irony of that declaration to be highly amusing.

What is not amusing, though, is the way politicians manipulate and exploit religious faith, especially during campaign and election seasons. Not only is it not amusing, it's downright insulting.

Two Mormons are contending for the presidential nomination of their party, and both are downplaying their faith connections and commitments because polls apparently indicate many Americans are leery of a Mormon in the White House (deja' vu all over again from 1960 and the irrational fear of a Roman Catholic president). Furthermore, both are accused of altering their views on important issues, shifting further to the right in order to appeal to "conservative and evangelical Christians."

In other words, "I want your vote, so I'll tell you that I see things the way I imagine you see them." It's not just the Mormon candidates who do this.

Frankly, I don't know why people want to please that particular constituency. While the "profile" of Christian conservatives largely may line up with the trend of a specific party, my sense is that most Americans are not looking for that type of leader.

But, it happens, and many advocates of a conservative "Christian" social agenda fall for it. The aroma of power is very intoxicating. Just hang around Capitol Hill for a while, and you'll see what I mean. Some folks refer to it as "Potomac Fever." The symptoms and disease are not unique to any one ideology.

No lesser an authority than Richard Cizik has stated publicly that politicians will do whatever they can to get elected, including using people of faith. When the election is won, however, dynamics, agendas, positions, and access change. Cizik is president of a group called The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He formerly spent a decade as a top-level official of the National Association of Evangelicals. Both are Washington-based political organizations. Cizik knows the players and the way the game is played. I respect his opinion.

While I believe that people of faith cannot separate their commitments and values from their political choices and priorities, I offer a word of caution against becoming enamored with politicians who speak "the code," as some refer to it. Avoid the "us vs. them" mentality. Don't be concerned with "taking back" something. Go into any election with your eyes wide open regarding candidates and platforms.

To me, it is imperative that in a diverse society and culture -- which is a blessing in itself -- people of faith should take a hint from Richard Cizik's approach and seek a "Common Good."

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