Over the weekend the New York Times ran a couple of provocative religion-themed articles. Addressing the whack-a-mole "he's a Muslim" Internet-fueled rumors that continue to spring up around Barack Obama, Samuel Freedman compared and contrasted the Democrat's groundbreaking campaign with that of Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith (a Catholic) in the 1920s.
The other article, an "If Elected" piece by Patrick Healy, focuses on the two candidate's differences on gay marriage. The Healy piece offers some genuinely helpful background to take into the voting booth --possibly because it covers a specific topic rather than trying to find a historical analogue for a complex social phenomena.
Freedman begins with an historical anecdote that sets the stage for his thesis:
During the presidential campaign of 1928, a photograph began circulating in rural areas of the Southwest showing Alfred E. Smith shaking hands with a fellow politician on the roadway of a tunnel. The image depicted Smith as he was officially opening the Holland Tunnel, which had been built during his tenure as governor of New York.
The people thousands of miles away who received copies of the picture were given a decidedly different explanation: Smith planned to extend the tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Vatican, so he could take secret orders from the pope. As just about any informed voter that year already knew, Smith was the first Roman Catholic ever to win a major party's presidential nomination.
After that, he cuts to the chase:
At the remove of 80 years, it is tempting to laugh off such a crude attempt at fearmongering and character assassination. With Catholics unquestionably part of the American mainstream -- one of the most coveted swing groups of voters in the current race for the White House --the misrepresentation of the photo might seem the artifact of a benighted past.
Except for two things.
The first is that the climate of anti-Catholic bigotry, which ran from the refined arena of The Atlantic magazine to the cross burnings of the Ku Klux Klan, not only contributed to Smith's crushing defeat by Herbert Hoover but also helped keep any other Catholic from mounting a serious run for the presidency until John F. Kennedy in 1960. The hate campaign, in other words, worked.
As for the second point, scholars of Smith's career and of American Catholicism say nothing in presidential history since 1928 more closely resembles the smearing of Al Smith than the aura of anti-Muslim agitation that has swirled around Barack Obama these past two years.
The insinuations of disloyalty to America, the caricature of the candidate as less than genuinely American -- these tactics could have come from the playbook of Smith's basest opponents, the scholars say.
We are being asked to make a few big leaps here, based on quotes from two scholars.
Anti-Catholic bigotry contributed to the defeat of Alfred E. Smith: that's pretty much accepted interpretation. The bigotry displayed during his campaign helped keep other Catholics from stepping forward as Presidential candidates -- very possibly. But is that comparable to the "aura of anti-Muslim agitation that has swirled around Barack Obama?"
And what does he means by "agitation", anyway? Who are the agitators?
Does Freedman want to explore why Obama has been surrounded by these rumors? Or does he want to examine why alleging that a candidate is a Muslim has been such a potent topic in this election?
These are huge issues that probably will be debated by historians for decades, if not centuries.
Two roads diverge here -- and the writer seems to want to go down both of them.
Freedman does make it clear that the big difference between Smith and Obama is that Obama has continually had to reiterate that, in fact, he is a Christian, not a Muslim.
"What is similar in Smith's time is that there was a widespread belief there was something dangerous about electing a Catholic as president," said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University historian who is the author of "Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928." "You couldn't be a good American and serve American interests if you were a Catholic, because you were beholden to a foreign potentate called the pope and Catholicism held autocratic tenets.
"Likewise today, there is a widespread belief that somehow you cannot be a good American and be a Muslim at the same time, that being a Muslim means you have loyalties outside the United States -- and, like Catholics in the 1920s, they are dangerous loyalties to militant groups seeking to do harm. There's no truth to the allegations, then or now, but they are tenaciously held."
In Smith's case, foes from the highbrow end of society, as well as K.K.K. bottom feeders, disparaged Catholic faith as incompatible with democracy. Admittedly, the smears against Mr. Obama have not achieved the comparable legitimacy in elite circles.
In the blogosphere and through mass e-mail, however, and even on Fox News and in Insight magazine, the disinformation has proliferated that Mr. Obama was raised as a Muslim, educated in a madrassa, influenced by an Islamist stepfather and sworn into the Senate holding a Koran.
Is this solely about bigotry? Or is it also about the ongoing American debate about what it means to be a patriot in the aftermath of 9/11?
What of the religious element? How about some conversation about the power of civil religion in the public square --sometimes a kind of lowest common denominator Protestantism?
Without denying the rank power of prejudice, and a huge amount of disinformation when it comes to what it means be an Muslim in America, I'd really like to see some analysis that goes beyond the easy analogy.
One other, more minor beef. I'm very tired of the overuse of the word "elite"-- to the point that it has almost no meaning. In this case I have no clue who Freedman is referring to.
To my mind, the biggest difference between Obama and Smith is that, on Election Day Eve, the polls say that Obama, and, by the way, his Catholic running mate Joe Biden, have a pretty decent chance of winning -- rumors, anti-Muslim sentiment or not.
Now on to the Healy article, an examination of the candidate's views on gay marriage.
A genuinely useful article -- with a distracting lede:
Several gay friends and wealthy gay donors to Senator Barack Obama have asked him over the years why, as a matter of logic and fairness, he opposes same-sex marriage even though he has condemned old miscegenation laws that would have barred his black father from marrying his white mother.
The difference, Mr. Obama has told them, is religion.
As a Christian -- he is a member of the United Church of Christ -- Mr. Obama believes that marriage is a sacred union, a blessing from God, and one that is intended for a man and a woman exclusively, according to these supporters and Obama campaign advisers. While he does not favor laws that ban same-sex marriage, and has said he is "open to the possibility" that his views may be "misguided," he does not support it and is not inclined to fight for it, his advisers say.
Seantor John McCain also opposes same-sex marriage but unlike Mr. Obama's, his position is influenced by generational and cultural experiences rather than a religious conviction, McCain advisers say.
As my colleague Mollie pointed out to me, there is a large difference between opposition to gay marriage and opposition to mixed-race marriage. Although the Scriptures were (mis)used by some to promote racism for centuries, there is no real opposition to marriage between men and women of different races. (one of our commenters pointed out that there are instances of such opposition in the Hebrew Scriptures -- see below)
On the other hand, while there may be people who oppose gay marriage out of bigotry, many oppose it on the basis that it is contrary to natural law -- and intepret the Scriptures to mean that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Starting with this argument sets up a highly debatable dichotomy. But, in stating Obama's position, Healy implies the counter-argument -- without articulating its foundations in Scripture and classical Roman Catholic theology.
Is John McCain's opposition to gay marriage solely a matter of "generational and cultural experiences" or is there a faith component?
While Healy refers to unnamed "advisers" it's hard to decide what McCain believes on the basis of one quote from his friend Jim Kolbe.
"He is a true federalist, seeing no need for the federal government to dictate laws on who can marry who," said Jim Kolbe, a former Republican congressman from Arizona and a friend of Mr. McCain's, and who is openly gay.
"As a personal matter, I think this is entirely a generational and cultural thing for him -- he just doesn't see a need for gay marriage," Mr. Kolbe said. "I just think gay marriage is not part of the world and background that he comes from."
We do know that McCain supports Proposition 8, the California attempt to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage -- and that Obama opposes it.
Advisers to Mr. McCain, meanwhile, say that he is not especially fervent on the issue -- he simply believes that marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and that this is a culturally accepted norm that he sees no need to dispute.
Woven throughout this story is the tension between progressives who see gay marriage as a matter of justice (and there are plenty in the mainline denominations) and those who oppose it on the grounds that it is contrary to tradition and Scripture. While conventionally portrayed as a liberal Obama is limned as not fitting easily into either mold on this particular issue.
While same-sex marriage is not expected to play a consequential role in the elections on Tuesday -- unlike in 2004, when a proposed ban in Ohio was widely seen as hurting the Democratic presidential nominee that year, Senator John Kerry -- passions remain high for voters on both sides. Some gay Democrats had hoped, in particular, that Mr. Obama would extend his message of unity and tolerance to their fight on the issue.
"Barack is an intellectual guy, and I know he has been thinking through his position on gay marriage, and what is fair for all people," said Michael Bauer, an openly gay fund-raiser for Mr. Obama and an adviser to his campaign on gay issues. "But he is just not there with us on this issue."
Healy offers a nuanced look at a highly controversial issue, illustrating that public officials can often be torn between their faith and what they see as their obligation to govern in a pluralistic society.
Mr. Obama has spoken only occasionally about his religious beliefs influencing his views on same-sex marriage, and he has indicated that he is wary of linking his religion to policy decisions.
"I'm a Christian," Mr. Obama said on a radio program in his 2004 race for Senate. "And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman."
In one of his books, "The Audacity of Hope," however, Mr. Obama describes a conversation with a lesbian supporter who became upset when he cited his religious views to explain his opposition.
"She felt that by bringing religion into the equation, I was suggesting that she, and others like her, were somehow bad people," he wrote. "I felt bad, and told her so in a return call. As I spoke to her, I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people."
"And I was reminded," Mr. Obama added, "that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights."
Wow. We don't know if Obama still feels the same way. With relatively little to go on, reporters can only give us hints at what lies beneath the surface of the candidate's careful statements.
If Healy's article seems refreshing, it may be because it addresses a polarizing issue in a way that acknowledges the complex interplay between politics and religion.
That being said, more development of Obama's position in the light of Christian teaching and tradition, and an exploration of McCain's position in the context of his faith would have provided another lens through which to understand how each man approaches this controversial topic --and how he might make decisions in the future.