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What’s God Got To Do With It?

A Conversation between ARTHUR C. BROOKS and GAIL COLLINS




Gail Collins: Hello from New Hampshire, Arthur. Voting’s underway. Many candidates are planning victory parties tonight -- too many, actually. Have you ever been to a victory party for a candidate who came in fourth?

Arthur Brooks: Hi, Gail. Yes, it’s surreal when all the losers declare victory. Imagine if Cam Newton unilaterally decided that coming in second in the Super Bowl actually made the Panthers the winner. Yet somehow it makes sense in politics.

Gail: Before we get deep into the candidates, Arthur, can we talk about God? Since so many of the candidates insist on dragging God into everything, I figured we should get a turn.

Arthur: At first I thought you wanted to start this week’s conversation with a prayer.

Gail: Well, may God deliver us from politicians who try to prove they’re the true believers.

I was particularly offended by Marco Rubio’s performance in Iowa. (That’s a surprise, since I would have sworn nobody could top Ted Cruz.) He kept falling back on “Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins.” That’s certainly appropriate for church and home, but not a presidential debate. Our leaders need to talk about religion in a way that includes people of all faiths.

Arthur: I understand your point about it sounding exclusionary, but there’s nothing particularly new about it, and it’s not limited to Republicans. It’s easy to find references to Jesus in public statements by presidents from both parties, including Obama and Clinton. And then there’s the deeply Christian language from important leaders throughout history, like Martin Luther King Jr.

But in truth, any expression of faith -- no matter how universalist -- is inherently exclusionary to people of no faith. It’s impossible to find a line short of getting rid of all religious language in public speech. I mean, I can’t imagine the American Atheists saying, “Just leave Jesus out of your public prayers and we’ll be all good.”

Gail: There are some atheists who do indeed cringe every time God comes up, but they’re a tiny minority. I’ll leave the constitutional issues to others, but if you’ve been living in America your entire life, you’re used to chaplains asking for blessings before public events and presidents taking the oath of office on a Bible.

Our founding fathers wrote about a Creator who gave all human beings unalienable rights. But I don’t think Thomas Jefferson would have approved of presidential campaign ads about “the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ.”

Arthur: I’m imagining an ad that finishes with, “I’m Th. Jefferson & I approve this Message.”

It’s hard to say about Jefferson. He himself held extremely unconventional religious beliefs, and even cut up the Bible to make his own version, which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” And while he never issued any government proclamation for prayer or thanksgiving, he openly prayed for God’s blessings in both of his Inaugural Addresses.

In his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, he referred to “a wall of separation between Church & State” not as a way to ban public religious expressions, but as an assurance that the Baptists’ religious freedom -- presumably including their freedom to make public pronouncements about their evangelical faith -- would be protected. I might be wrong, but I’d say Jefferson would be less appalled by presidential candidates making statements of faith than by presidential candidates suggesting we close mosques or by the federal government forcing nuns to provide insurance that covers birth control.

Gail: If you threw Thomas Jefferson into a time machine, I think he’d be worried about the idea of employers using their religious beliefs to keep their employees from getting the same health insurance as everybody else. But that’s a topic we should probably save for a separate, lengthy conversation.

I’m glad you brought up Muslims. Ever since Donald Trump began his rampage, we’ve been getting reports of Muslim children who are genuinely frightened they’ll be put in jail or sent away because of their religion. President Obama made what I thought was a lovely speech to a group of young Muslim-Americans recently, reassuring them that they were part of the country and that people understood their faith was one of peace.

Arthur: That was the right thing for President Obama to do. George W. Bush was quite good on this kind of inclusiveness, too -- he visited a mosque after 9/11 and made similar remarks. And Jeb was appropriately complimentary about Obama’s visit.

Gail: But Marco Rubio instantly attacked the president for “pitting people against each other.” Now Marco Rubio is an all-purpose twit, but this was one of his worst moments. The guy who loves to wave his specific faith in the public’s face. And he’s shocked, shocked when the president demonstrates tolerance and compassion for an embattled religion.

Arthur: It may or may not be a bad political decision to use overtly evangelical language like a lot of the Republican candidates are doing. On the other hand, it is entertaining watching Trump trying to get the hang of it. The greatest moment, of course, was when he read aloud from “Two Corinthians” at Liberty University in Virginia.

Gail: Well, at least he didn’t say “100 Corinthians.”

Arthur: Maybe that will be a book in his version of the Bible, entitled “The Life and Morals of Donald J. Trump.”

But I honestly don’t think the candidates’ talk about Jesus is driving anti-Muslim sentiment. “My team is great” doesn’t necessarily mean “Your team is lousy.” These comments are not comparable to Donald Trump’s pronouncements about Muslims in the wake of the San Bernardino mass murder.

But here’s another comparison I’d like your opinion on. Bernie Sanders has publicly called for “a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders, on Wall Street and elsewhere, whose policies and greed are destroying the middle class of America.” Do you think there is a fair comparison between Sanders and Trump, in terms of attacking whole classes of people?

Gail: No, there’s no comparison. Nay, no, none. For one thing, unless you’re concerned about a new version of the French Revolution, that top one-tenth of 1 percent doesn’t have to fear persecution. Second, they have more than enough power to take care of themselves.

Third, I think when it comes to things like tax structure, Bernie has a point.

Arthur: I agree with you that it is more deplorable to punch down than it is to punch up — that hitting the poor and weak is generally unforgivable. But even if one believes our system allows rich people to keep too much money, I think declaring war on a whole class of Americans is an ugly and dangerous business. Maybe not dangerous in that it will provoke a French Revolution, but in terms of fomenting the contempt and polarization that are making peace and progress impossible. And to say (as he did in the Democratic debate on Thursday night) that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud” reminds me of people on the right who suggest that everyone who works for the government is lazy and incompetent.

But hey, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss all this in the coming weeks. I don’t think we have to worry that the Republicans will stop talking about religion or that Sanders will stop telling us to eat the rich.

Turning back to the primaries — does your crystal ball show any New Hampshire surprises?

Gail: We’ve had surprises all along. Marco Up! Marco Down! Jeb Flounders! Jeb Does — Sort of Better! On the Democratic side, things seem to be trudging toward their inevitable conclusion, in which Bernie Sanders wins and then runs into trouble when the voting population gets more diverse. But the Bern certainly has the mojo right now.

Speaking of diversity, though, I have noticed a dramatic drop in references to God since the pack crossed the New Hampshire border. This may have something to do with a Gallup poll finding that New Hampshire is actually the least religious state in the country.

What’s your forecast?

Arthur: Are you suggesting the candidates might have been using religious language to win over voters in Iowa?

On the G.O.P. side, my forecast is another rough night for the pollsters. With so much news coverage treating the race like “Entertainment Tonight,” the surveys seem to be measuring media hype as much as substantive support. On the Democratic side, I agree with you completely: Sanders wins but faces a buzz saw in South Carolina.

Have a blessed week, Gail.

[Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing opinion writer; Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist.]

Courtesy: The New York Times
February 10, 2016


Conversation about this article

1: Ujjagar Singh (Jaipur, Rajasthan, India), February 10, 2016, 9:49 AM.

Looking at Modi's sickening photo above, may I please borrow the words of Lady Macbeth? "Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh!" -- And then, of course, Macbeth's lament: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red." Slobbering a gallon of sandalwood paste all over your face won't help either, Mr Modi.

2: Kuldip Singh (Patiala, Punjab), February 11, 2016, 8:29 PM.

"Many years ago, I asked my Spiritual Master, "All the chaos in this world, who is responsible for it?" The Master replied:"Two classes of people who live by the principle of divide and rule. One, politicians and the other, preachers." We need to find people who are neither politicians nor preachers to run this world. These leaders would have to be truly spiritual leaders.

3: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 17, 2016, 10:08 AM.

Preachers never follow Gurmat - [GGS:380]. They are never honest and loyal to Guru, Gurbani and God. They believe in personal glory and free money - [GGS:160]. There are lots of dharam karam, but there is no sharam!

4: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), February 19, 2016, 9:53 PM.

Only wicked people can practice "tricks and ruse" in the practical affairs of the world.

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