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God and 'telos' on the US campaign trail

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COMMENTS

14 March 2012 11:05

Benedict Coleridge is a Lowy Institute intern and regular contributor to Eureka Street.

Religion permeates the 2012 Republican presidential primary in some fairly non-traditional ways.

First, there's Mitt Romney's Mormonism. This time around, when his chances of securing the nomination are better than in 2008, it has been at the centre of attention to his candidacy (his early opponent, Jon Huntsman, former Governor of Utah, helped underline Mormonism as a feature of the 2012 campaign). Of course, Mormonism has featured before, courtesy of Mitt Romney's father George, who lost the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon in 1968.  But in 2012 it is attached to the real prospect of a Mormon presidential candidate.

Then there's Rick Santorum, Romney's greatest threat. He's a Catholic who nevertheless speaks in evangelical cadences immediately recognisable to the Protestant Republican hinterland. In his book 'It Takes a Family', Santorum mentions God frequently, champions 'the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview' and supports the idea, institutionalised in 2001 by George W Bush in his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, that religious organisations, rather than government, should provide social services.

Interestingly, voters are obviously not voting along denominational lines – the 'cradle Catholic' Santorum has failed to win the Catholic vote in any state for which data are available. Instead, Santorum recruits the evangelical vote. And although Mormonism remains suspect to many in America, that has not deterred a majority of Catholic Republicans from giving Romney their support. Even Newt Gingrich has a non-traditional religious cast similar to Santorum's, in that Gingrich's recently-found Catholicism has a distinct evangelical tinge.

With the exception of Ron Paul (who nevertheless describes himself as a Baptist, as well as a libertarian), every prospective candidate so far in this Republican primary acknowledges religious belief as part of their campaign self-presentation.

This is a traditional element of US presidential politics, though it may be that American politicians have become increasingly vocal about their religious faith – compare Rick Santorum's rhetoric about religion and the state with John Kennedy's reflections on the matter half a century ago. And it isn't just Republicans – Barack Obama during his 2008 election campaign often made Biblical allusions and referred to being guided by the Spirit of God.

In their campaign rhetoric, American presidential candidates work within what might be described as an Aristotelian framework. An Aristotelian conception of virtue defines the 'good' as teleological, that which is ordered towards an ultimate moral end. At the level of language, at least, politics has to be ordered towards an ultimate conception of the good. The language of 'efficiency' is not enough. The religious language and identity of each candidate is important in enabling them to position themselves as leaders who have a sense of ultimate purpose.

In the American political scene, espousing an atheistic and materialist philosophy would make it difficult to be recognised as professing a belief in a moral order oriented toward a particular moral destination. Successful presidential campaigns are, in their language and symbolism, oriented toward a 'moral end'. So Obama's 2008 campaign borrowed from Martin Luther King to speak of completing the work of Moses, and bringing people into the Promised Land. Indeed, Ron Paul might be suffering in the primary vote in part because his language is devoid of an overtly religious dimension – he champions liberty in the abstract but can offer no 'telos', no ultimate moral end towards which America might set its gaze.

Compare this to Australia where the religious faith (or a lack of it) of political leaders is generally sidelined from the main political game. Sure, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd did interviews after the Sunday service at his local church and wrote an essay on Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and Julia Gillard has acknowledged that she is an atheist. But neither have invested their political rhetoric with their religious or a-religious stance.

In Australia, policies are generally articulated using language devoid of teleological purpose. Instead, Australians tend to deploy the language of efficiency versus inefficiency. The question is inevitably asked by the media and by politicians, 'what return do taxpayers get for their money? Is this a worthwhile investment?' So Australian political language can sometimes sound very similar to the language of the market.

This is not to say that American presidential candidates don't use the language of efficiency. They just add to it an assessment of policy at the level of its compatibility with America's 'telos', its moral mission in the world. This moral mission is often expressed in religious terms. And so the language and role of religious identity in presidential politics will be important themes to watch over the coming months.

Photo by Flickr user senorglory.

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