Stories Still Matter: A Review of Ask the Question for Baker Book Bloggers

Ask the Question: Why We Must Demand Religious Clarity from our Presidential Candidates

by Stephen Mansfield

251 pp. Baker Books. $19.99

The book’s title poses a riddle that Ask the Question takes its time to answer: what question should we, the American public, be asking?  And what does “religious clarity” mean in the first place?  When I saw this title in the monthly email from Baker Books, I wanted to pick it up just to see where Stephen Mansfield landed.  I feared that I’d be reading a standard partisan screed: if the GOP wants to claim Jesus, they need to step up and do something more for the poor!  Or, if Mansfield came from the other camp, I’d expect, “Don’t’ let those DNC politicians claim to be Christian!  Make them answer for the policies they support that defy the clear witness of the Bible!”

Yes, Reader, I wanted to watch a train wreck.

The strength of this book is not that it avoids train wrecks but that Stephen Mansfield has a generous enough imagination to encompass several train wrecks.  In the Introduction, Mansfield tells a story of two histories in America, narratives that reminded me of my conversation with Stephen Prothero on Christian Humanist Profiles: on one hand, the men who showed up for the Constitutional Convention were republicans, and they knew full well that the long marriage between crown and mitre in Great Britain was not something they wanted to risk.  Moreover, many of the fighters in the Revolutionary War were Baptists and Methodists and Catholics and Unitarians and Deists and atheists and folks from all over the religious map, and they had enough sense of decency to make the new republic their republic as well.  On the other hand, the new Americans, who were heirs of a long history of European Christian thought, saw their own story as deeply Providential in character so that the radical secularism that would emerge with the French Revolution was not adequate to their imagination.

To thread that needle, to hear Mansfield tell the story, the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights put matters of religion in the hands of the people (79).  The Constitution’s sixth article bans “religious tests” for federal office (75), but until the fourteenth amendment extended federal-constitutional authority to states’ governments, states could decidedly forbid Jews, Catholics, or anyone else from holding gubernatorial or other state or local offices.  (Mansfield, to be fair, says that we’ve done well to outgrow those prohibitions but acknowledges that such apathy towards religion a the state level really wasn’t on the radar in the eighteenth century.)  More importantly for our own, post-fourteenth-amendment situation, nothing in the text of the Constitution forbids a candidate from talking about her religious background or a journalist from asking about that religious background (81).  The Founders, who were well-read and broad-minded folks, knew full well that there were Muslims (they called them “Mohametans”) and Hindus (they spelled that “Hindoos”) in the world, but they trusted the American people, provided that they know the full story, would vote for the candidate whose spiritual as well as political and professional background would best serve the American people.

Stepping beyond the Constitutional Convention, Mansfield profiles a handful of American presidents and presidential hopefuls, noting the ways in which their spiritual lives reflect and inform their public service.  He narrates Thomas Jefferson’s journey from involvement in and assent to the Anglican church to his complex, late-life relationship with Christianity, which loved the morals of Jesus but had no use for priesthood or miracles (132-135).  Abraham Lincoln’s course was precisely opposite as the young skeptic, whose friend had to burn up an anti-Christian pamphlet called “Infidelity” the young lawyer wrote (138) for fear that it would destroy his future political career, suffered through the death of children and found a spiritual friend in a Presbyterian minister (140) and, though he never joined a church, come to talk memorably about his own sense of destiny and America’s Civil War as a punishment from God for the sin of slavery.  Not knowing Mansfield’s work well at all, I’m not sure how tongue-in-cheek his claim is that Jefferson and Lincoln are the predecessors of twenty-first-century America’s “nones.”

Turning to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Mansfield turns to Kennedy, Romney, Obama, and Clinton to tell the story of America’s strange relationship with religion and politics.  As Mansfield’s story goes, John F. Kennedy changed the script for American presidents’ religious speech when in 1960 he insisted that his presidency would pose no threat of a Roman puppet-state in Washington, that he did not run as a Catholic but as a Democrat who happened to be Catholic.  Using the language of “outside religious influence,” JFK established in the Washington subculture an assumption that a politician’s spiritual life should have nothing to do with his life as a public servant (46-50).

Mitt Romney’s mistake, Mansfield argues, was to stick to that script.  Romney spoke only three words about his faith when he accepted the GOP’s nomination in 2012: “We are Mormons” (109).  During the campaign as well, Romney tended to go the way of Kennedy and to minimize his involvement in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints instead of telling his story with full particularity.  Mansfield does not suggest that talking more about the Latter Day Saints would have won Romney the election, but he does wonder whether the GOP and Romney’s campaign would have done better to emphasize Romney’s background as folks who have survived religious persecution (his ancestors as well as his own early political career, when anti-Mormon arsonists burned his church), held the U.S. Constitution to be sacred text, lived frugally and responsibly, and otherwise lived a distinctively Latter-Day-Saints sort of life (62).

To show the promise of God-talk on the campaign trail, Mansfield produces the various moments when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have talked about God and have cited the Bible not as a book whose ancient words the modern state must ignore but as inspiration to work for the oppressed and serve the poor.  They’ve discovered what George W. Bush did before them: because many Americans consider public challenges on the grounds of religious doctrine impolite, they can enlist the language of faith to lend energy to their public projects, and people get more nervous about that than they would about challenging policy without the talk of providence and divine justice.  To say as much is not necessarily to attribute duplicity to Bush or Obama or Clinton; instead, according to Mansfield, Americans are re-discovering what our forebears never forgot, namely that religious conviction is baked into the American story and into the lives of those who would govern Americans.

All of that sets up the strongest part of the book, a guide to reading critically the God-talk of politicians.  (If you need it spelled, out, the question that one should ask is, “What is your faith story?”)  Mansfield suggests that voters take a literary-critical approach to how presidential candidates talk about God, focusing on their stories of how they come to faith (176-77), how they talk about the heritage of their families and churches (176-79), and what sort of providence or destiny animates them spiritually (184).  So it really makes a difference whether a candidate tells a story of personal ruin and personal redemption, followed by a calling to public office for the sake of freeing America to be compassionate, free from the crushing bureaucracy that keeps us from being our best selves (George W. Bush) or whether they tell a story of a deliberate, considered conversion that allowed them to continue holding their reasoned political convictions but demanded of them that they treat their ideological opponents with more humility because, after all, in Christ we all share a destiny together (Barack Obama).  The elements of a candidate’s faith-story give a layer of intelligibility to their identities as policy-shapers and decision-makers, and Mansfield wants each of us, journalists especially, to pay attention to those sorts of stories.

The real strength of this book, as I said at the outset, is that Mansfield is an even-handed writer who’s interested in framing each president’s and presidential candidate’s faith in terms that the candidate would recognize.  When he writes about Ronald Reagan, I get a sense that Reagan really had spiritual convictions, not just an entertainer’s knack for pleasing crowds.  And when he writes about Hillary Clinton, I’m very nearly convinced that there’s a soul beyond the Machiavellian maneuvering.  In other words, this is a fascinating book for its call to critical reasoning in the public sphere, but it might be even better medicine for people like me, folks who can’t imagine a president’s having any religion beyond the next Zogby poll.

Baker Books provided my complimentary copy of Ask the Question, and they did so without any expectation that I would provide a positive review.

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