Ask The Question, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.
Summary: Contends that an in-depth understanding of the faith of political candidates and the role of religion in their lives, as well as in the world, is an important right of citizens entrusted with important decisions in the voting booth.
Stephen Mansfield opens his book describing a White House Correspondents Association dinner and a notable absence among the three thousand in attendance. There were no religious correspondents, despite the fact that there were a number of qualified people who could have attended. Yet even this number is lessening as newspapers and other media are facing budget issues in an internet age. And among the many who cover the news, there is a combination of reticence and ignorance around religious issues that results in either an unwillingness to ask questions about religion or a lack of knowledge about what questions to ask. Mansfield, who has written books on the faith of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney contends that careful reporting of religious views and an understanding of the role of religion both in our society and globally is as vital as ever.
Mansfield attributes that lack of interest in religion to the influence of Auguste Comte’s ideas on the academic and media elite. The idea was that the rise of science including the scientific study of society would lead to the eclipse of religion as people moved into the brave new scientific, secular world. Yet globally and nationally, this has been shown to be a mistaken conclusion. China may soon have the most Christians of any nation in the world. Pentecostalism, Mormonism, and Islam are rapidly spreading in the world, as well as in the U.S. which is becoming an increasingly religious, though pluralistic nation.
Similar to Randall Balmer’s God in the White House (reviewed here), Mansfield explores the watershed moment of John Kennedy’s 1960 speech in Houston about his faith arguing that he was the Democrat candidate for President, not the Catholic candidate and that he would not take orders from the Vatican. Essentially he made the case that no religious test should be applied to the presidency, even for Catholics. Yet candidates did talk about their faith, especially from Jimmy Carter on, and the votes of faith communities were sought by appealing in part to the religious views of candidates. Thus, when Mitt Romney was a candidate, he tried an approach similar to JFK, even speaking in Texas, except that it didn’t work. Mansfield argues that it would have helped Romney to be forthcoming about the positive influences of his faith throughout his life, particularly given the significant leadership role and family heritage Romney has in Mormonism. Mansfield also has a chapter on the rise of the “nones”, whose spirituality doesn’t fit the standard religious classifications and often are an eclectic mix. He argues (and I think accurately) that Thomas Jefferson was a “none”, even as he was aware of the importance of religion.
Perhaps his most interesting chapter is an in-depth exploration of the faith of Hilary Clinton, who he would suggest may be one of the most religious people on today’s political scene. He traces her involvement in a Methodist youth group led by Don Jones who exposed her to radicals like Saul Alinsky, whose watchword was that “Christianity is either a faith that relieves the suffering of others or is dead.” He points to the deepening of that faith in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair in which she spoke of God more often, and participated both in Capitol Hill prayer meetings and conferences of progressive Christian organizations like Sojourners. Yet the key word may be progressive, evident in her voting record on various social issues, and it may very well be her understanding of Christianity that, at least in part, helps shape her political commitments.
I found myself wishing he had profiled Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Perhaps when he was writing the book, he may not have believed them serious candidates. It would be fascinating to explore Sanders atheism and how his ideals fuel his candidacy. What reporting has there been about Trump’s claimed Presbyterian affiliation? People have decried his positions as “un-Christian” but how many have explored what, if any religious or ideological commitments have shaped his ideas?
Mansfield concludes the book by returning to his basic premise–that faith narratives are important within life narratives, that presidents have often taken religious counsel in the White House, and knowing something about how one’s ultimate commitments shape how they have thought about the political issues of the day is something Americans ought to have access to as they prepare to go to the ballot box.
I found myself heartily in agreement that religion is often badly reported and misunderstood in the press. Voices like Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Jonathan Merritt are showing the value of careful, investigative reporting done by religion reporters. I also think that reporting, like what Mansfield has done, that goes beyond sound bites, to biography and the connection of faith and a politician’s political positions and practice is valuable. I did at the same time find myself wondering how one safeguards against turning such reporting into a “religious test”.
I would advocate that “religious clarity” is only one factor to be weighed along with integrity of character, stated positions and actual voting records, and an assessment of competence to serve in the office. In 1976, for example, I voted for Gerald Ford rather than Jimmy Carter, even though Carter’s faith was quite attractive to me. I thought Ford, who I saw as a man of quieter faith but principled, had demonstrated a competence over his career and grasp of the matters a president must contend with. I still think I was right, though we will never know. Yet Mansfield addresses an important “blind spot” in our political reporting, that will always have an important role in the decisions we make and the leadership we are given.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”