Inflammatory rhetoric in politics is commonplace, and religion is by no means exempt from the hostility. But once in a while a politician makes such an offensive, ignorant attack that it sparks religious voters to forcefully respond. Such confrontation is needed for the health of our public discourse.
That's what's happening in Missouri right now. In a recent conversation with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins about NBC's recent omission of "under God" from the pledge of allegiance in a television broadcast, Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin said "Well, I think NBC has a long record of being very liberal and at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God." [emphasis added]
I don't need to tackle this accusation about liberalism on the merits -- it's absurd on its face, and it's an insult. Akin was resorting to the tried-and-true conservative ploy of pitting religious people and liberals as inherently in conflict, which implicitly positions the GOP as the party of God. While this is hardly a new line of argument on the Right, rarely does an elected official lay it out so explicitly.
In addition to stoking fear and misunderstanding, Akin demonstrated a fundamental ignorance of liberal people of faith. Countless faith leaders hold liberal political beliefs because of their faith, not in spite of it. You can find them in all 50 states -- including Missouri. In response to rebukes from progressive clergy from his district, Akin offered a qualified apology, reading in part:
People, who know me and my family, know that we take our faith and beliefs very seriously. As Christians, we would never question the sincerity of anyone's personal relationship with God. My statement during my radio interview was directed at the political movement, Liberalism not at any specific individual. If my statement gave a different impression, I offer my apologies.
My point was to object to the systematic assault that attempts to remove any reference to God from the public square.
It's nice to see Akin reach out to smooth things over with his constituents, but he pointedly did not retract his remark that liberalism was rooted in a hatred of God. It's hard to convey respect for your constituents' faith while maintaining that their political beliefs are rooted in antipathy toward the Almighty. Following Akin's quasi-apology, a group of clergy who are constituents of Akin's visited his office and delivered a letter and a petition from Faithful America members calling on him to cease his disrespectful treatment and reconsider his moral priorities.
One of the participants, Rev. Jeffrey Whitman, conference minister for the Missouri Mid-South Conference of the United Church of Christ, said "When the congressman makes a statement like that, he's talking about people who feel as passionately about their faith experience as he does about his. To characterize the liberal constituents he serves in that way really is not what we would expect from our elected representative."
Akin might not have understood that many liberal (and theologically diverse) religious people live out their faith by working for justice, compassion and the common good, which can entail supporting political positions classified as liberal and identifying oneself as liberal. Stirring up spats about God-hating liberals' crusade against ceremonial deism might make for good sound bytes on conservative radio, but it's theologically ignorant, disrespectful to people of faith, and unbecoming of a public servant. And I'm proud that religious liberals are calling him on it.
Rev. Butler is Executive Director of Faith in Public Life, a strategy center advancing faith in the public square as a force for justice, compassion and the common good. She is author of Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized. She has experience working on global human rights issues at the United Nations, and is an ordained Reverend in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.