The good news: Frank Bruni calls out U.S. politicos for pandering to religion

December 8, 2013 • 10:30 am

The good news is the op-ed piece by Frank Bruni in today’s New York Times, “The Bible as bludgeon.” It’s an eloquent indictment of the unjustifably large role of religion in American life, and the need for politicians to profess Christianity to get elected to any office.

How often do you read words like this in a major newspaper?

You can make a successful run for political office in this country without an especially thick résumé, any exceptional talent for expressing yourself, a noteworthy education or, for that matter, a basic grasp of science.

But you better have religion. You better be ready to profess your faith in and fealty to God — the Judeo-Christian one, of course. And you better be convincing. A dust-up last week in the 2014 race for a United States Senate seat from Arkansas provided a sad reminder of this, showing once again that our ballyhooed separation of church and state is less canyon than itty-bitty crack.

Bruni’s referring to an incumbent U.S. Senator from Arkansas, Mark Pryor, who is running for re-election in 11 months.  Pryor is worried, as he’s losing ground to a charismatic Republican, Tom Cotton. What do you do in America when you need more support in the South? Profess religion, of course! And so Pryor made this campaign ad (TRIGGER WARNING: Unctuous religious rump-osculation):

That’s pretty disgusting, and I bet that non-U.S readers will be amazed at it.

But of course the Republicans struck back, noting that Pryor wasn’t religious enough: that he’d made a comment earlier that the Bible “is not really a rule book for political issues.” O heresy! Such is American politics, soaked in religion.

Bruni abhors it, and rightly so, for, as he notes, 25% of Americans aren’t Christians, and “nones” and outright atheists are growing in numbers:

As full of insight and beauty as the Bible is, it’s not a universally and unconditionally embraced document, and it’s certainly not a secular one. Yet it’s under the hand of almost every American president who takes the oath of office.

It’s in classrooms, some of which teach creationism. The Texas Board of Education has been withholding approval of a widely used biology textbook because it presents evolution as more than just a theory. Thus, in the nation’s second most populous state, whose governor essentially kicked off his 2012 presidential campaign with a stadium rally for tens of thousands of evangelicals, religion is trumping scholarship, at least for now.

“So help me God.” “Under God.” “In God We Trust.” Perhaps we’re meant to register these ubiquitous phrases as unspecific inspirations, vague recognitions of an undefined higher power, general appeals to generous living. But they’re rooted in a given religious tradition and are arguably the gateways to the Arkansas ridiculousness and to the overwrought accusations of a “war on Christmas” that herald the holiday season as surely as Frosty the Snowman and Black Friday do.

. . . The centrality of religion in this country’s birth and story can’t be denied. And shouldn’t be. And having the Bible at inaugurations honors tradition more than it offends pluralism. But using the Bible as a litmus test for character betrays the principles of religious liberty and personal freedom, along with the embrace of diversity, that are equally crucial to America’s identity and strength. It also defies the wisdom of experience. How many self-anointed saints have been shown not to practice what they preach? How many of the ostentatiously faithful have fallen? Theirs is an easy pose, and sometimes an empty one.

There is more in Bruni’s piece; read it. And while Pryor’s osculation of faith is disquieting, the fact that Bruni calls him out for it, and calls out the entire electoral system as well for its obsession with religion, is good news.

I will live to see the day of a woman President (I suspect that will be January of 2017). But I am positive that I won’t live to see an atheist President. I’m hopeful, though, that the grandchildren of my contemporaries will.

h/t: Greg Mayer

43 thoughts on “The good news: Frank Bruni calls out U.S. politicos for pandering to religion

  1. Ah, what a brave, brave ad — pandering to the majority and pretending that leaving religion out of politics is the coward’s way. Yes, let our government be guided by a Perfect Person who speaks directly to an individual’s heart and by a Perfect Book which just interprets itself. That way nobody can go wrong.

    Good article.

  2. … the Judeo-Christian one, of course.

    When’s the last time we had a Jewish president, or even presidential candidate?

    1. Well, we had a Jewish Vice-Presidential candidate (Joe Lieberman) not that long ago.

      But you raise a good point: in practice, “Judeo-Christian” is generally code for “Christian but doesn’t want to be called out for being anti-Semitic and who somehow hopes that that, in turn, will transfer into a perception of some form of ecumenicalism generic enough to not get smacked down by the courts for an Establishment Clause violation.”


    2. It was impressive when you have a Catholic president, even. 🙂 Sadly, things didn’t change afterwards.

      As a Canadian, most of our leaders are Catholic (because many have been French Canadian) but the nice thing is, no one gives a crap & no one asks them about it.

      I remember once we had a CIO in my company from the south who said some “god” statement that I swear I’ve blocked out. I remember thinking, “Hmmmm, you’re in the godless north now….we find those statements weird”.

      1. Thankfully Prime Minister Harper, who I believe is evangelical, pretty much keeps that to himself. And thankfully we don’t know what Rob Ford’s religion is…

        Jerry, I’m glad you posted this. I read it this morning and considered forwarding it…

        1. Yeah except when he says “God bless Canada” and most Canadians say, “wuh?”. He does seem to keep his evangelical cronies in check though and he outright refused to change the abortion laws. He isn’t stupid. He likes being PM! 🙂

        2. Harper’s policies are right in line with his evangelism

          – Funds for for war torn nations? Sure, but no abortions for rape victims

          – Science? We need no stinkin science.

          According to information provided to me in March by the Professional Institute of Public Service Canada (PIPSC) – the union which represents federal scientists and other professionals employed by 38 federal government departments – 5,332 of their members have already either lost their jobs or been transferred to other duties. That number includes 139 scientists/professionals at Environment Canada (cut by $53.8 million in 2012, after cuts of $200 million in 2011), and 436 scientists/professionals at Fisheries & Oceans (already cut by $79.3 million, with $100 million more in cuts announced in the March 2013 budget). Thousands of unionized support staff have also been cut from these, and other, departments.

  3. “The Bible teaches us that no one has all the answers, only God does.” — Mark Pryor

    Hermeneutics: I’m on God’s side, therefore I have privileged access to all the answers located within my self-righteous compass.

    The epistemological chess move of the pious.

  4. Is Pryor sincere? Since we all know this pablum is required for election wins, are they all Reagan-esque? All actors? I would love statistics on the sincerity factor?

  5. It was no atheist who said, “The Devil uses the scriptures.” When will the Xtians get it into their heads that just because someone waves the Bible around and says they’re a devout Xtian doesn’t mean they actually are.

    Just look at, for example, Rush Limbaugh. Or at a certain US president who professed Christianity while funding death squads in Latin America. Or any number of other public figures who claim Christ said the way to the Kingdom of Heaven was to make hungry children even hungrier . . .

    The hypocrisy is obvious to us, looking at it from the outside. But it should be obvious to Xtians, in their own terms, that mere profession of faith says nothing about devoutness. Indeed, even in the gospels (I forget which one) there’s a warning against people who shout their faith from the rooftops.

    1. Actually, there’s ample Biblical support for all those things. Overwhelming support, too — to the point that you have to twist the text into its 180° opposite meaning to get to the sane, rational, humanistic position.

      For example, in Luke 19:27 Jesus clearly calls for the killing of all non-Christians. And the “parable” card doesn’t play, for the parable is of what Jesus will do in his own prophesied return at the Battle of Armageddon. Considering that, almost invariably, the most militant Christians with the highest body counts are invariably also those who anticipate Christ’s return in their lifetimes and who are eager to hasten his return by triggering Armageddon, there’s really no way to soft-pedal that into something fluffy and nice.

      For that matter, Jesus is basically never presented as a noble or sympathetic character. Every other verse, he’s condemning people to infinite torture for some triviality or another, or he’s come to bring the sword that will rend asunder families, or he’s being brutally anti-Semitic, or the like. Sure, he makes a few generous token gestures of niceness here and there, but the IRA and Hamas both have their charity divisions, too.

      No, I’m afraid that the notion that Christianity is inherently a force for good and that Jesus is a positive role model is pure propaganda, no different from that which paints Kim “Dear Leader” Jong-il as the greatest dude ever.

      Or, in other words, the fault of the Christians you cite isn’t their hypocrisy. It’s their true and faithful Christianity.



    2. When will the Xtians get it into their heads that just because someone waves the Bible around and says they’re a devout Xtian doesn’t mean they actually are.

      Oh, now, they don’t need them to be. Deference is all that’s required.

    1. Pithom:

      This is the transcript of Scene XII, the interview of Senator Mark Pryor, in Bill Maher’s RELIGULOUS:

      12. SENATOR MARK PRYOR, REP. ARKANSAS (in his Senate office)

      – So you’ve described yourself as an Evangelical Christian. You said the most important lessons in life are in…the Bible. Everyone in politics likes to brag that they’re a person of faith. Why is faith good?
      (Senator) Faith has a way of softening people… Jesus, he’s very forgiving.
      – He also said, ”If a man doesn’t abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers, and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” [John 15:6]
      (Senator) And I do believe the actual literacy of that story. We’ll let God sort out all the details of that on Judgment Day.
      – What about the 10 Commandments? But it’s not really a wide list of 10. The first four are all about just worshipping God…a jealous God, and he doesn’t want you to have any other gods. The only two that are really laws are don’t steal and don’t kill.
      Why is this the wisest group of 10? It doesn’t include child abuse. It doesn’t include don’t torture…rape…that we would probably include [today].
      (Senator) Society is so different today and our culture is so radically different today.
      – That’s what I’m asking. We’re in a different culture. Can you think of anything else that we still cleave to from the Bronze Age?
      (Senator) Basically, murder is against the law in every country in the world.
      – But wouldn’t we have come to that even without religion?…There’s been more killing in the name of ”My God.”
      (Senator) You think maybe sort of indigously (sic) or just by our DNA, we somehow know that killing another person is wrong? I’m not sure that that’s the case.
      – Really, you need God to decide not to kill each other? We are now, among industrialized, modern nations, the most religious nation.
      A recent study found that among 32 countries, more people in this country doubted evolution than any other country on that list, except, I think, it was Turkey.
      (Senator) In the US, we have freedom of religion.
      – Do you believe in evolution?
      (Senator) You know my– I don’t know. Clearly the scientific community’s a little divided on some of the specifics of that and I understand that.
      – I don’t think they are. I think they pretty much agree.
      (Senator) I don’t know how it all happened. I’m certainly willing to accept
      the scientific premise.
      – It couldn’t possibly have been Adam and Eve 5,000 years ago with a talking snake and a garden, could it?
      (Senator) Well, it could’ve possibly been that.
      – See, this is my problem. I mean, you’re a senator. You are one of the very few people who are really running this country. It worries me that people are running my country who think– who believe in a talking snake.
      (Senator) You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate, though.

      1. That is both, scary and hilarious. Not sure which side prevails.
        I’d like to think that in Europe such dimwits would not have a chance to become anything more important than janitors … but unfortunately there’s (e.g.) Germany’s Dieter Althaus, an open creationist.

  6. That’s his entire ad? No policy positions, no nothing but the Bible.

    I guess he’s OK with stoning adulterers and children who disobey their parents then. Disgusting.

  7. But I am positive that I won’t live to see an atheist President.

    Perhaps; the gay thing changed pretty quickly, and it’s conceivable that the atheist thing could, too.

    1. Acceptance of same sex relationships was helped by folk’s realization that their neighbors’ sexuality really wasn’t something they controlled, and that it is cruel to ask them to pretend otherwise.

      With atheists, though, people are going to persist in thinking, “Jesus, man, all you have to do is lie. Is that so hard?” Look at the McElwee piece posted earlier today. Isn’t that at least part of what he’s saying?

  8. I wish for Greg Esres’ hopes to come to fruition. The change in the opposite direction took less than 43 years, though, as illustrated by the following public speech.

    On Sept. 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, … Web Link:


    Kennedy: … While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I … (want) to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

    I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

    I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

    For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

    Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

    That is the kind of America in which I believe. … I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

    … And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it. If they disagree with that safeguard, they should be out openly working to repeal it.

    I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation. …

    And in fact ,this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died, when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches; when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom; and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey. But no one knows whether they were Catholic or not, for there was no religious test at the Alamo.

    1. “…where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference…”- although it may be argued that to “not give them funds” covers this, you neglected to mention the tax breaks that churches get.

  9. “I am positive that I won’t live to see an atheist President.”

    I guess we must gather, Jerry, that you’ve given up on the wishful, if not untenable, idea that Obama is a closet atheist. I tend to think that he is not, but I do hold out some hope that once he is long out of office we may learn that he is much less ardent a believer that he has been compelled to make himself out to be.

    1. No,I haven’t given up that idea yet. What I should have said was “openly atheist President”. I am not sure who I recently heard saying that we’ve probably had several atheist President, but they wouldn’t admit it. (It might have been Sarah Silverman in Jesus is Magic.)

      I’m not sure about Obama. But of course Jefferson was at best a deist.

      1. Somebody made the point that there’re 100 Senators, 435 Representatives, and one each President and Vice-President…and, out of those 537 elected officials, only one (incidentally my own, Representative Krysten Sinema) is openly an atheist. Statistically, that’s impossible, and we should reasonably expect at least an hundred more are secret non-believers.

        There’re also a grand total of eight “out” LGBT members of Congress (again including Rep. Sinema). It’s a statistical certainty that there are more closeted LGBT members, but the ratio there is merely wildly disproportionate, as opposed to laughable.

        If we could get our ostensible political representatives to honestly present their own positions, we could maybe get a start at getting them to honestly represent the will of the people who (perhaps) elect them.

        Then again, it’s been ages since a majority of the electorate (defined as eligible voters, not those who cast ballots) actually elected anybody, so all this is basically moot….


        1. eh, that’d be assuming that the senators and whatnot are being randomly sampled from the population as a whole.

          Surely the whole point of elections is to make sure that the people you elect AREN’T randomly sampled from the population? If a proper sample was good, you could save quite a few millions of dollars on those hideously expensive elections…

          While I tend to assume that there are some closeted (in several respects) people in your government, I’m not sure that the statistical argument really holds unless you can show that LGBT/atheist/etc/etc people are as likely to try and become senators, etc… and that once in the running that they’re as likely to get elected.

          It’s plausible to me that they might not be in many districts down there. At least for now.

          1. Surely the whole point of elections is to make sure that the people you elect ARENT randomly sampled from the population?

            The government is supposed to represent the will of the people; on that I think we can all agree. To that aim, a very strong argument could be (and has been) made that a random sampling is, indeed, the best method to achieve that goal.

            To a (very) rough approximation, an election will result in a proportional distribution of characteristics as the population as a whole. It is then useful to compare the distributions of the population and that of the elected officials to note where they diverge.

            The first and most obvious differences are that Congress is far more male, far more white, and far more wealthy than the archetypal average American. Republicans are almost exclusively rich white men, but rich white men also overwhelmingly dominate Democrats out of all proportion with the general public.

            So, if we want to consider ratios of atheists in congress, perhaps we should compare not percentages of atheists in the general populace but the percentages of atheists amongst rich white men.

            …and that just makes the problem worse. Statistically, each of those three demographics skews more towards atheists; more atheists are men than women; percentages of atheists are much lower amongst African-Americans; and religiosity falls as wealth rises.

            While I could keep going, the actual explanation has been made repeatedly and is obvious: polling shows that Americans trust atheists less than they trust rapists, as batshit fucking insane as that is on every level. So, unless you want your polling numbers to reflect said insanity, you not only keep your mouth shut about how silly and idiotic you find the whole imaginary friend thing, you do everything you can to convince others that you love your imaginary friends even more than they love theirs.

            You know how the more likely a public figure is to be an outspoken gay-basher the more likely he is to not exactly be completely heterosexual? The same phenomenon is almost certainly at play here.

            It’s not called, “holier than thou” for nothing….



            1. Yeah those are good points about politicians not representing people based on being rich, white men and therefore making their lack of atheism (also more likely among rich, white men) even odder if indeed they are not more closeted atheists (which I suspect there are, including Obama).

  10. Good points well put. One irony–and concern–about the increasing infusion of religion in politics is that many religionists seemingly don’t even recognize it and, indeed, bemoan what they perceive as the relative lack of religion in politics. They can’t get enough of it.

    The fact is that religious talk has increased dramatically in political dialogue since Reagan. In The God Strategy (2008), David Domke and Kevin Coe trace the use of religion in politics from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. At the risk of oversimplification, one of their findings is that religious references in political speech skyrocketed with Reagan and have remained high since. The cynical use of religion in politics threatens to tear apart the fabric of our diverse society.

  11. > That’s pretty disgusting, and I bet that non-U.S readers will be amazed at it.

    Well, next time my chancellor utters her usual vacant statements, I will remember this, and think “Be quiet, my heart …”

  12. “The bible teaches us that no one has all the answers; only god does.”

    Wish s/he’d got off his/her fat ass, off that too cushy cloud, and pitched in to make for a smoother rollout of the ACA.

    1. I just spent way too much time on a CBC news article about an atheist billboard that was rejected in Vancouver. Ugh. I was happy to read the reasoned responses from many atheists but some of the dumb remarks were maddening. One gem was “belief doesn’t require evidence. You have no evidence that God doesn’t exist!”. First, decrying evidence when he has to present it, then saying evidence is something atheists must present. It’s funny & depressing all at once.

      1. Yeah, I hope we hear more on this one though. It can’t be all over, can it? I hope the CFIC finds a way around this, and get their ad out. What the ad company said sure sounds fishy.

  13. As an Australian, I found the clip nauseating.

    here is one which really helped – the wonderful Jon Stewart on Republican spirituality. I don’t know how to insert it without the clip being included.

  14. Surprised not to see any mention of Barry Goldwater’s quote on the fundamentalists taking over in Bruni’s piece, or comments to the Times piece, but nice that all the ones I saw were rational. What % would be like that if this ran in an Arkansas paper?

  15. This is a sad situation where the psycho right wing of the Republican party is causing the democrats to try to fight fire with fire.
    Arkansas politics is as far from rational as you can get. ASA! Hutchinson may be the leading candidate for governer. Ceiling Cat help us.

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