Buyer’s Remorse in Selling Jesus

One of my favorite laugh-out-loud movies of all times is the Coen Brothers film. “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, a story based loosely on Homer’s The Odyssey, set in the Deep South during the Depression. Suave and fancy-talking Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), dim-witted Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), and easily-excitable Pete (John Turturro) are serving time together on a prison chain gang. Everett knows where $1.2 million is hidden that’s theirs for the taking, and the three manage to escape; however, a stranger soon warns them that they’ll find treasure, but not the sort they’re looking for. As Everett and his partners hit the road, they happen upon a gluttonous, one-eyed bible salesman, Big Dan Teague (John Goodman); meet up with Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco) as he robs a bank; encounter three Sirens doing their washing; run into Everett’s estranged wife Penny (Holly Hunter), who has told everyone her husband was killed in a train wreck; find themselves in the middle of a heated campaign between political boss Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning), and reformist candidate Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall); and even find time to make a hit record as The Soggy Bottom Boys.

In the meeting with Big Dan Teague, there’s this bit of dialogue:

What kind of work you do, Big Dan?

Sales, Mr McGill, sales! What do I sell? The truth, every blessed word of it. From Genesis down to Revelations. Yes, the word of God, which, let me say,there’s damn good money in during these times of woe and want. People want answers, and Big Dan sells the only book that’s got ‘em. And what do you do, you and your, uh, tongue-tied friend?

We, uh…We’re adventurers, sir,pursuing an opportunity, but we’re open to others as well.

I like you. I’m gonna propose you a proposition. You cover my bill for now, get your dinner wrapped picnic-style and we’ll retire to more private environs, where I’ll reveal how to make vast amounts of money in the service of God Almighty.

Jesus Cleanses the TempleThis conversation could have taken place in any of the many presidential campaign staff planning meetings in the recent contest. Selling Jesus has been good business and politically expedient. But many Christians have seen through the facade and don’t appreciate the blatant money-changing in the temple. I think it’s time to clear the air and let both campaigns know, enough is enough.

In a Christian Science Monitor article by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, he warn the candidates to “Stop Misusing Religion.” Here’s the rest of the article:

Americans will choose a new president in less than five months, but the losers of this election are already clear – the sanctity of religion and the integrity of democracy.

The latest evidence came late last month, when Sen. Barack Obama announced his resignation from his home church. Such an important decision should have been made purely for personal or religious reasons. Instead, it was apparently driven by political considerations.

As a practicing minister, I understand how painful it is for him to leave a church that has been an important part of his life for many years. It is the church in which Senator Obama was married, and it is the church in which his children were baptized. It is a place where he apparently found a community with his neighbors and with his God.

But as president of the Interfaith Alliance, I also understand why Obama found himself in this situation. During the primary campaign, the major presidential candidates engaged in a frenzied rush to prove their religious bona fides.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign went on a self-described “faith tour” of South Carolina, based explicitly upon a verse from the Book of Esther. Senator John McCain got off the Straight Talk Express to pander to the religious right when he gave the commencement address at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

And Obama is equally at fault. Early in the race, his campaign set up a website to feature endorsements from clergy, despite the fact that tax law prohibits religious leaders from making candidate endorsements in their official capacities as men and women of God.

Last fall, he asked a South Carolina congregation to help him “become an instrument of God,” despite the fact that the Constitution says no such thing.

The candidates have sought the endorsements of clergy, and both Senator McCain and Obama are now having some buyer’s remorse. But candidates cannot have it both ways. They cannot continue to use clergy for political gain and then discard them when it no longer fits their agenda.

The problem is not that these presidential candidates incorporated religion into their campaigns. The problem is that the candidates have used religion as a divisive tool, instead of a unifying power.

Rather than printing campaign brochures featuring a picture of Obama in front of a giant cross with the words “committed Christian,” as Obama did, candidates should tell the American people why, how, or if faith informs their policy positions.

Rather than declaring the United States to be a Christian nation, as McCain did, candidates should outline what steps they would take to respect the vast diversity of religious beliefs (and nonbeliefs) in this country.

Rather than asking the candidates to talk about when they have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit – as CNN did during a “faith forum” for Democrats earlier this year – the media should instead ask the candidates to outline their views on the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom.

If the Liberty Bell had not cracked in 1846, it most surely would have done so in 2008 thanks to the US presidential candidates.

If the meaning of the Liberty Bell’s biblical inscription – “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” – is to ring true in America today, no candidate for the presidency should ever have to resign from or join a particular house of worship in order to be a viable candidate for that high office.

To make such a decision for political reasons dishonors religion and disrespects the Constitution. It makes a sad statement about American politics and an even sadder one about American religion.

Obama is at the center of the storm, but all who wed religion to partisan politics share responsibility for this tragic development.

For the sake of both religion and democracy, we must do better. Our country deserves an electoral campaign which treats religion with the same respect held by those who built the Liberty Bell.

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