By Bill Leonard
Religiously speaking, this presidential election is a fascinating moment in our national life, and for multiple reasons.
First, one party nominated a Mormon and a Roman Catholic as president and vice president respectively, the first time in American history that a major party ticket has excluded a Protestant! This is not the first time a Mormon has sought the presidency. The father of the present Republican nominee unsuccessfully pursued that party’s nomination in 1968. Mormon patriarch Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844, the same year he was assassinated by a “gentile” mob in Nauvoo, Ill.
Second, the ideological orientation of the two Roman Catholic vice presidential candidates could not be more disparate. Yet, both the Republican and the Democrat have been reprimanded by American bishops for their views on economics and sexuality, respectively. (Ironically, the bishops have found themselves chastened over similar issues.)
Third, the Democratic nominee (the country’s first African-American President) is a Christian, long schooled in that faith by the African-American church. Yet many question his Christian profession in surveys indicating some 40 percent of the public still believes him to be a Muslim.
These electoral events bring together four individuals with diverse religious identities, many reflecting contradictory approaches to personal and communal faith. As election-day looms, what in their traditions might unite them, with long-term implications for the party that captures the presidency?
What if these candidates made a concerted response to poverty, a major imperative of each of their respective faiths? Yet each campaign seems strangely silent regarding poverty and the poor. As one commentator recently noted, talking about poverty in this election year is “not a political winner.”
But what if the candidates took their distinct religious traditions seriously enough to make alleviating poverty a “winner” for everyone?
Consider, for example, the Mormon text, Doctrine and Covenants 119:4: “Those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually, and this shall be a standing law unto them forever, for my holy priesthood, saith the Lord.”
Suppose the Mormon candidate, inspired by his faith tradition, agreed to encourage those making more than $250,000 annually, who would receive additional tax relief through his administration, to give at least 10 percent of their income to benefit poverty-alleviating agencies for perhaps the next four years?
And what if the Roman Catholic vice presidential candidates asserted: “We know we are miles apart on many religio-political questions, but our faith commitment unites us in common concern for poverty. We affirm the recent statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressing dismay that poverty has been so small an issue in the 2012 campaigns. With our bishops, we recognize that some 12 million Americans are unemployed, while some 10 million exist as the ‘working poor.’ As candidates for vice president, we will follow our faith to work in behalf of the poor in America.”
And what if the Democratic presidential candidate recalled the words of the Protestant preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., who organized the “Poor Peoples’ Movement” in 1968, the year of his assassination: “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.'”
What if this president affirmed his own faith-based commitment to “do something about” poverty in 2012? This could involve conversations and strategies related to government programs, nonprofits, and religious communities, all revisiting together the growing needs of the impoverished among us.
In the end, whoever gains the presidency, might “a preferential response to the poor” become a real “political winner” for everyone?
Suppose we accept the assertions of the Mormon, the two Catholics and the Protestant that they are indeed persons of faith. And if they are, let’s ask them to take seriously another ancient text, claimed by all three of their traditions: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead” (James 2: 15-17).
Matter of fact, if the rest of us ever-squabbling-faith-based-sinners should take those words even half-way to heart perhaps a renewed effort to attack poverty and its horrible affects together would have political, ethical and yes, even spiritual implications for an entire nation. I’d vote for that, by God, no picture ID required.