Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Should we ask Presidential candidates about their faith?

As a psychologist with a bachelor's degree in Religious Studies who works in the public sector and did an internship in the California State Assembly during college, I have a particular interest in the role of faith as a motivator and driver of behavior and decision-making, especially during election season. The 2016 election season has already had some interesting intersections with faith and candidates' appearances of commitment (or lack thereof) to traditions.

Stephen Mansfield argues that the populace should ask every candidate, especially Presidential candidates, detailed questions about their faith in his latest book, Ask the Question: Why We Must Demand Religious Clarity From Our Presidential Candidates. I was initially concerned that this text would ultimately argue asking these questions in order to have a religious litmus test for the Oval Office. While I'm sure Mansfield has strong personal faith (which can be guessed by how some things are framed) and political convictions, he stays largely objective, providing a descriptive assessment of both the history of faith and politics in the United States as well as the role of faith in the lives of many Presidents and candidates.

Mansfield observes the religious political history of the United States, noting the ways religion and politics have intersected differently over the decades. He knows his religious and political history well and will probably shock some readers in detailing the more agnostic faith of many of most respected historical leaders. I particularly appreciate that he does not present these facts with any judgment, as might be expected from texts published by Christian companies, rather acknowledges reality, including the historical motivators and benefits of restrained faith.

In exploring the faith of Presidents and Presidential candidates, both historical and current, Mansfield describes the honest depth of people across the political spectrum. He has written religious biographies on several political celebrities of both parties. Sadly, he explained how he received death threats after writing his text on Obama, acknowledging the President's deep Christian faith. But Mansfield drives on, continuing to raise descriptive, objective awareness of how politicians' faith histories impact their current public policy. This is truly a gift.

There are a few times when Mansfield's personal opinions appear to subtly show up. He occasionally makes evaluative comments about some leaders' faiths, stating that their faith hasn't imbued them fully since they still take a particular stance on some topic. With his religious history background and knowledge, he should be well aware that people can honestly come to vastly different conclusions of biblical and theological application. This doesn't mean their faith isn't driving them; it just drives them and has transformed their lives differently than for others. Despite this, Mansfield's descriptions of the role of faith in the lives of many Presidents and candidates left me with a deeper respect and appreciation of these people.

Ultimately, I'm not sure I 100% agree with Mansfield argument that we must ask explicit questions for religious clarity. Mansfield's thesis for asking these questions relates to the fact that religious labels mean less and less over time and individual's unique theological framework needs to be addressed. I agree with the fact that worldview and values clearly drive behavior, decisions, and policy making, although this piece could have been clearer in the book. However, increasingly, worldview and values are not necessarily framed in clearly religious terms even though academically, I would argue that all worldview is religious in a broad sense. Emphasizing religious clarity may actually restrict these conversations, as many people (candidates included) may not be getting the underlying question. We need to ask questions about candidates' values, moral frameworks, worldviews, and the like. Religious language will arise out of that naturally, where applicable for the candidate.

This is one of the most engaging nonfiction books I have read/listened to in quite some time. Granted, I am a nerd when it comes to religious history, but this is a book I'd be quite tempted to listen to a second time. Bob Souer's narration is clear and engaging. However, especially when reading Presidential speeches, there's nothing that could compare to the original intonation, expression, etc.

I highly recommend this book as a thoughtful exploration of the role of faith/religion in the American Presidency. Hopefully it helps reduce assumptions across ideological lines, helping us recognizing the ability of many people to improve our public policy and the honest, if different, faith some people come to public service through.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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