James Wall

Religion in Politics

VTR Date: January 24, 1988

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “Religion in Politics”
VTR: 1/24/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is a Methodist Minister. So it is appropriate to discuss religion with him. My guest also has been involved heavily with Presidential candidates and campaigns for some time now. So it’s appropriate to discuss politics with him, too. And, Dr. James Wall has long been the distinguished editor of the prestigious national weekly magazine, The Christian Century. So that the crucial contemporary connection of the American press with religion in politics becomes fair game for our Open Mind as well.

Indeed I want to begin our program today by asking about an editorial Dr. Wall wrote lat in 1987 in which he claimed “When John F. Kennedy appeared before a group of Houston ministers in his 1960 campaign for President, and assured them that his religion would not directly influence his decision-making, he changed, perhaps forever, how the public views the relationship of religion to politics”.

For the Wall editorial goes on further about the 1988 presidential sweepstakes: “The two ministers in the race (Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson) represent a different case, however. Neither is believed to be a serious contender for the final prize, and while there is a variety of reasons why this is so, at least one of them is their overt religious orientation. Our pluralistic culture appears nervous over the prospect of a religiously committed leader assuming power. In 1960, Protestants didn’t want John Kennedy taking orders from the Pope. In 1988 the Papacy is no longer a threat – but god is”.

So why, Dr. Wall, why is god a threat?

Wall: My point in this editorial, Dick, is to suggest that the public is nervous if they think that someone is responding to a deep religious commitment in making political decisions. The public wants a candidate to pay lip-service to religion. But not indicate a deep religious commitment in the process of running for office.

Heffner: That’s a considerable indictment of the American people, isn’t it?

Wall: It may be. And it may be based on some bad experiences, they may feel, the public generally may feel, that overly sanctimonious or pious people would get them in trouble. The irony, of course is, and the contradiction here is, that the public wants moral individuals running the government. They want character to stand out. And so you have something of a running contradiction between overt religious commitment on the one hand being disapproved as far as a political operative is concerned. And a need for character and high moral standards on the other hand being essential.

Heffner: And yet you’ve been here at this table before. Some years past. And you waxed eloquently and, if I remember correctly, angrily about the ways in which the majoritarian American involvement with morality/religion was being set aside by the American press, laughed at, poked fun at by, not only the American press, but by the liberal Eastern intellectual establishment.

Wall: Interesting you put it that way because as I was speaking, I was realizing that there is a big distinction between the general public and the American media. American media are generally, the leadership at least, the professed expression of politics and faith – secular in orientation. Very nervous about any indication of piety. Extremely sensitive to the fact that someone may have a deep religious commitment. So I think that might help to account for some of this contradiction, this irony of the public wanting a moral character to be put forward. And the press saying, “Be careful if there’s any overt pietism”.

Heffner: Are you blaming everything, once again, on the press?

Wall: No. you’re trying to get me to do that, but I will not do that.

Heffner: Well, but, but look, let’s be very frank. In the past you have felt, you’ve expressed the feeling that the press is, to some considerable extent, responsible for an uneasiness. The kind of uneasiness…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …the kind of uneasiness you’re talking about now. Certainly in Jimmy Carter’s case…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …about piety.

Wall: Yes, I think the press is uneasy about piety and I suspect it isn’t necessarily an anti-religious feeling.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Wall: I may have…no…I think it may have more to do with the inability of the press to deal with true faith commitment. Because true faith commitment calls for someone to really move out of a commitment to a deep, mysterious, ultimate reality. Which is awfully hard to boil down to a headline or thirty second bite on the evening news. That’s where the nervousness comes in. not something they can handle easily.

Heffner: All right. That’s I think a fair criticism in the sense that it is an intelligible criticism. I can understand that. And you mean that, the bite, the short sentence, the headline…

Wall: Sure.

Heffner: And that the media generally want that brevity and when they don’t have the brevity, and one doesn’t in terms of commitment, they become opposed to the person who has committed that way.

Wall: the problem is reporting religious commitment. How do you report something as profound as a faith, a belief that one feels connected to the eternal mystery of life. How do you report that? You really can’t report it because, after all, reporting, by definition, is objective, unless you start making subtle hints that show a certain subtle subjectivity, it is an overt description of what’s happening out there. A surface portrayal. It is only when you spend an enormous amount of time dealing with the ambiguities, dealing with the subtle feelings that people have that you begin to get at this deeper faith commitment. As you know, I have indicated that one of the problems that Carter had, and you’ve referred to this, was he came into office professing a religious faith. Now this had not been done before. People had not been as overt as he was in talking about his actual commitment to a belief in an ultimate being who guided him. And it got him in trouble with the media. Now notice, Pat Robertson, whose politics are certainly not to my way of thinking, but nonetheless, Pat Robertson is taking a very real beating by the press because of some of the things he said in the past that grew out of his religious orientation. His world view is religious. Robertson has spoken to talking to god. Robertson has spoken of being in prayer with god, of being…there’s one point I made in one of my editorials in which he said that he was going to fire Jim Bakker when Jim was a very young guy working for him as a puppeteer on his television station, until god told him, “don’t fire Jim Bakker”. Now the press…secular press…loves to make fun of this sort of thing. Why? Because it seems silly. Well, what is really happening here? Isn’t Pat Robertson really saying, “I’m in communication with the ultimate being that I follow”. That’s what religious people have said from the very beginning of religion. There’s nothing unusual about that.

Heffner: But if I remember correctly, you , in commenting on that, were a little bit snide yourself, sort of indicating that had he listened or not listened a little better to god perhaps Bakker would not end up in the position he did end up in.

Wall: That was not being snide that was just a factual statement. He understood god to say to him in some kind of fashion, I don’t’ think he means that he certainly heard god’s voice speaking to him out of a burning bush or something. But he felt led to not fire Jim Bakker in that instance. In that sense, he was talking to god. And all I said was that he suffered a great deal, his campaign has, because of the negative publicity that has come out of Jim Bakker’s experience.

Heffner: What place do you see then, for religion in politics or religious persons in politics?

Wall: Ahh, you quoted the John Kennedy experience, or his speech that he gave in 1960 to the Baptist Ministers and the southern ministers generally, in Houston, Texas. I will quote something again, what he said, “I will make my decision in the White House, if I’m elected (as he eventually was) in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest and without regard to religious pressures or dictates”. Now look at what he is saying there. I suspect Ted Sorenson wrote that statement, but nonetheless, it’s a good statement. Kennedy must have adhered to it. What he’s really saying is, “I ain’t gonna be religious enough to count. Don’t worry about it. Don’t’ worry that I might allow my religion to interfere with my governing the country”. Now that is finally absurd on the face of it. Because if someone has a religious commitment, a religious faith, it will be that faith that dictates to them how they make decisions. Now, perhaps hidden in that sentence I just read to you is also his willingness to say, “I will keep the common good, the national interest in mind as I make these decisions”. But to imply that there would be no religious pressures or dictates from god is, I think, a falsehood, a failure to understand that one is always motivated by some ultimate concern. We all are motivated by some driving force behind us. It may be a political ideology, as it is with the current White House resident, or it may be a deep religious concern. But we all have something that drives us. And so, yes, it’s a long way of answering your question, I think everyone is going to have to come to grips with who it is, what it is that governs their thinking as they make decisions in what they think is in the best interests of the common good.

Heffner: Yes but that ends up, doesn’t it Dr. wall, not as saying nothing, I don’t mean that, but as saying something that seems to cancel itself because it leaves us, quite frankly, with that question, once again, “What is the role of the religious person, not the person who is committed intellectually, philosophically…”

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …but the religioso, the person who, who finds himself enormously involved in religious concern, qua religion.

Wall: Now, let’s explore that a little bit. You’re making a very interesting distinction. You apparently are suggesting that with a Jesse Jackson or a Pat Robertson, who both happen to be ordained clergy men, you apparently are suggesting that they are somehow different in their religious faith and their religious commitment from a Mario Cuomo, who’s clearly got a Roman Catholic faith that is very meaningful to him, or a Jimmy Carter who clearly has a Southern Baptist faith that’s very meaningful to him. The point I want to make is that all four of those gentlemen have a religious orientation. We really don’t know how deep their faith runs, only they know that and only finally, god knows that. But to make a distinction between someone whose profession is religion, which is the case of Robertson and Jackson, against a man like Cuomo or carter is to make a false distinction, it has more to do with their profession. Robertson, for example, thought he would make some advance in this regard by dropping the term Reverend from his name. Now he did that purely for public relations value. It has no meaning because he still is identified as a full-time religious person, professionally speaking.

Heffner: But a very shrewd, full-time religious person, too, so that the fact that he dropped the reference must indicate something further and, indeed, seems to support your own basic point.

Wall: Sure. All he is doing, all he is doing is saying, “All right, since people around the country must be nervous about full-time religious people being involved in politics, then I will drop the Reverend from my name”. And it may satisfy…I don’t think it would, but may satisfy some people.

Heffner: Let me go back. Forgive me, I’m not beating a dead horse, I’m beating a very live one.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: This question of the role of religion in American politics. Aside from the question of what you consider the nervousness of Americans, the dis-ease that they feel in the face of…

Wall: Qualify it, the nervousness, primarily of media people, and enough of the general public that there is a resonance to what the media is saying. I’m not sure that the vast majority of our public necessarily agrees with that. But go ahead.

Heffner: No, no, no. let’s stick with that. I won’t pin you to “Is it the vast majority or not”?

Wall: I don’t know. I don’t know numbers-wise.

Heffner: But what do you think about – can you call an American, a typical, an average American? What do you think about the great unwashed? Are you simply saying, “These media moguls, they’re the ones who get uneasy because they don’t have an experience, the way most Americans do, with religion”.

Wall: Someone has suggested that this country that we live in is something of a collection of tribal groups. People who follow a certain grouping mindset, ethnicity in some cases, religion in other cases, geographical location in other cases. People who live in Wyoming have a certain feeling about their place in the world. Grouping, tribal feelings. I think that many of the American “tribes”, as I’m using that term, are people who have a sense of the importance of religion in governing one’s life. And therefore, if they sense in a political figure a religious commitment, they respond to that in a positive kind of way more than, I think, the general Eastern elitist kind of media that you alluded to earlier.

Heffner: You said it…

Wall: No, no, you alluded to it.

Heffner: No, no, no. but, Dr. Wall, after all, I use those words because they’re words that you’ve used in the past.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Because I remember, maybe it was one of the first times you appeared on the Open Mind, it was toward the end, or it was after the end perhaps of the Jimmy Carter Administration and you were still hopping mad about the way he had been treated by this Eastern liberal establishment.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: For the reasons that you’ve just indicated?

Wall: Seven years later I’m still hopping mad about it.

Heffner: You know, you say in this editorial, at the end of 1987, “In recent years only Jimmy carter has come into office practicing and professing his faith. His case may be instructive, for though there are many and complex reasons why carter lost public favor in the final months of his administration, his overt religious commitment appears to have worked to his disadvantage in maintaining rapport with the public”. Do you really mean because of the needling that he had to take at the hands or at the pens of the media?

Wall: I think carter had a problem with his personality in dealing with the public, in dealing with the media leaders, in dealing with the Congress. He was such a serious, intent man and his religion was part of that seriousness, that he simply did not resonate very effectively with them. And it worked to his disadvantage.

Heffner: You indicate, of course, that and I thought it was so fascinating in this editorial in Christian Century, you talked about the “malaise speech” that carter presumably, and you’ll find it everywhere, and I guess I’ve said it numbers of times, referred to the “malaise speech” and, in fact, you say the word was never used.

Wall: He never used the word “malaise”. And the interesting thing about that and I get this from Bill Grieder’s new book on the Federal Reserve System, is that the initial response to that speech that he gave, after coming down from these sessions at Camp David, was positive. The initial response from the public was “He’s right. We are too materialistic”. I mean his comments were very significant. He said that “We have discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning”. That was basically a sermon that he gave. And it was received positively until the press began to report on it and until somebody called it, I never will…I’d like to know someday who initially gave it the term “malaise speech”. Because it wasn’t a “malaise speech”, it was a speech calling us to some self-sacrifice and to a new vision of American life. And as I indicated in my editorial, when another President said, “As not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, he was saying the same thing. It wasn’t called a Malaise Speech, it was called a great inaugural speech by John F. Kennedy. And my contention is that that was well received because Kennedy was seen as speaking from a secular base, carter was seen as speaking from a religious base and therefore, it was perceived to be sermonic. In the early days of this history, you’re a historian, you know about jeremiads in which the great speakers of our earlier days in US history would, on occasions like the Fourth of July, get up and give a very zingy kind of address to the people, calling the people to follow a higher standard than they’ve been following. These were sermons, for all practical purposes, addressed to the civil religion of this country. His speech was something of a jeremiad. Not a malaise speech.

Heffner: Dr. Wall, as a practicing man of religion, press person and a politically involved person…I was going to say a politician, but I was afraid…

Wall: Political activist is the term that I like.

Heffner: All right, political activist. You ran jimmy carter’s campaigns in Illinois, if I remember…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …correctly. Would your political judgment be, would indeed your religious judgment be, too, and would your journalistic judgment be, to stay away, as if from the plague, from some future candidate who is related in this way to things religious?

Wall: Now if you’re asking me what the public should do, I should say absolutely not, do not stay away from such a person.

Heffner: No, no, no. No, I’m talking you as a…

Wall: No, no. what I would say would be to take a person, Cuomo is a good example, because he’s the one man currently running, or not running, whatever you believe for public office at the highest level, Presidency, who seems to have made a very conscious effort to tell the public, “Yes, I have a deep religious commitment”. The others make face noises about it. They say, “I have a religious orientation” which is expected of them. Cuomo seems to be genuinely religious. All I would advise him to do is to be very careful about what he says about his faith. Avoid, as a political consultant I would say, “Let’s not have any more talk about reflective thinking about the meaning of my day’s activities. Let’s not have any more thought about I’m pondering what I should do from a religious point of view. Be careful”. Why? Not because I want him to be unfaithful to his own faith, it’s because I know how that will read when it’s read by the media. They don’t like it; they’ll attack him for it. He’s already been attacked for it, for being too philosophical, for being too reflective. That’s dangerous. That’s my advice. Keep your faith, but be very cautious about how you speak of it in public.

Heffner: Well, “keep the faith, baby” is a…is probably good advice, but there…

Wall: Keep your faith that you’re already committed to.

Heffner: But you, politically speaking you find danger, great danger…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …in the candidate who does not play to that weakness.

Wall: I find great danger in the candidate who allows himself to be maneuvered into a situation where he or she seems to be overly pietistic or overly religious. Be careful about how you use the language. You see there’s a language of religion. And there’s a language of the secular world. And if you try and mix the two languages, you run into a lot of trouble. Carter tried very hard in that jeremiad he gave, not to use a religious language that would not find general acceptance in the public and I thought h handled it very well. It was a meaning-oriented speech. I remember doing an interview once with Jerry Falwell on a radio show in which he talked about the blood of Jesus. And I said to him on the air, I said, “You know that’s a bad word to use with an audience like what we have here, with millions of people listening through radio land”. I said, “It’s a code word, the blood of Jesus is a code word for Christians and particularly for fundamentalist Christians who use it as a code word”. He was offended that I would talk about it as a code word. But that’s what it is. I don’t mean it negatively. It’s a phrase that has meaning for persons of a certain religious orientation. Don’t use that in trying to communicate to the wider public. That’s what a politician has to be careful about.

Heffner: I read that piece and I was very much impressed by his indignation…

Wall: He was very angry.

Heffner: …and your wise counsel. I gather he felt that there was something cynical about it.

Wall: Yes. And then, of course, he’s not a politician. I guess he figures he can say what he likes because they know him to be religious. But he’s entered into the political realm, so I think he should be wise and he usually is, he usually is kind of cautious in using that kind of word, but in that instance he wasn’t.

Heffner: We have, you know I keep getting these signals, we have five minutes left.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: What do you think should be now, looking into the future, I’m not talking about a particular candidate or a particular party. What should we try to construct as the…or structure as the appropriate role of religion in politics, if any at all?

Wall: I don’t think you can structure it. Because, you see, what’s going to happen is that in our system, as we’re seeing right now with what, about thirteen people who have risen to the top, we’re down to the last thirteen. That’s really what we’re faced with right now. Thirteen solid human beings. I think any one of whom would perhaps be…any one of whom might be okay. You can’t predict which one of those thirteen would come into this arena with a religious orientation, or none. Other than what they have professed openly and publicly right now, you don’t know which one has a deeper religious commitment than another one. So you can’t structure that. You cannot determine in advance what should b done. The advice I would give is, be faithful to who you are. Be faithful to your religious commitment, act upon it. Be conscious that when you make a decision, as I think Abraham Lincoln, who was one of the great theologians of American history, lay theologian, not trained theologian, but he thought theologically. As Abraham Lincoln made the case, you make decisions connected to that which motivates you. You make decision based on your feeling of being related to an ultimate concern. And he did that. And I think any President who has such a commitment ought to be subconsciously willing to do that. But then be very careful about how you articulate what you have done. Because remember, you’re speaking to a secular audience and you’re speaking through a very, very secular medium.

Heffner: Jim, to whom are you speaking when you speak outside of this country, as President of the United States?

Wall: You mean when you leave the geographical boundaries?

Heffner: No, when you address yourself to the world. You’re President of the United States, but in this area what are the pitfalls?

Wall: Well, you know, of course, that you’ve got other faiths which have their own fundamental components. Islam, for example. I remember carter during the Iran crisis that he went over the heads of media right straight to the Ayatollah by talking about how we have common understandings in our respective faiths. Islam and Christian. It didn’t work because I think the Ayatollah was operating out of a different world view than Mr. Carter and they didn’t hit. It’s important, to answer your question, when you speak outside the boundaries of the United States to recognize that you’re living in a very pluralistic world, a series…a collection of continents. Very pluralistic. Very great variety of religious faiths. And you, therefore, have to speak to whatever is a common hook that all can share and agree with.

Heffner: And I wonder whether you don’t think that that makes this matter of choosing someone, picking someone as our candidate, who speaks in religious…domestic religious terms, Western religious terms, doesn’t have a danger in itself?

Wall: Well, of course, American presidents have always invoked the name of god in their inaugural speeches. Someone made a study of how many times the word god appears in inaugural speeches, and so that’s simply because it’s out culture to do that. But it’s more of a civil religion god than it is a truly deep religiously committed god.

Heffner: Dr. Wall, we’ve reached the end of our time. We must talk someday about that American civil religion. You come back.

Wall: All right.

Heffner: Thanks so much for joining me today. And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s theme, today’s guest, please write to The Open Mind, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.