Monday, January 12, 2004


An interesting Washington Post piece on the media's treatment of American politicians' religious beliefs. The article is by Steven Waldman, former reporter and editor for Newsweek and US News & World Report, now editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.

In The Candidates' Spiritual Path he points out that "[t]wenty to 30 percent of Americans now practice a faith different from the one in which they were raised, according to sociologist Robert Wuthnow. And a much higher percentage have switched houses of worship. For 20 years now, sociologists have documented how Americans have become 'consumers' of spirituality. Changing faiths or churches could mean someone is flighty, but more often it means that they take their spiritual journey seriously enough to reassess it constantly. This is what baby boomers do. They shop. And serious shoppers are often quite intense."

This is true. Whether consumerism is a good model for spirituality, is, of course, another matter entirely -- and one which should not simply be conflated with change and development of convictions in an open culture. (See also Shopping for God, A Sceptic's Search for Value in the Spiritual Market Place by Rowland Howard.)

One of the circumstances that has sparked this debate is the scrutiny applied to Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean, who was raised Catholic, switched to the Episcopal Church, then linked with Congregationalism and is raising his child in the Jewish faith in accordance with his wife's tradition.

Waldman goes on: "Another misconception that has crept into the media analysis of the candidates' religious statements is the idea that Americans approach religion with the mind-set of theologians. Thus, Dean and [Wesley] Clark were maligned not only because they shifted a lot but because they seemed to do so for superficial reasons. Dean, it's often been noted, switched churches because of a dispute over building a bike path. Clark left the Catholic Church in anger over the anti-military rhetoric of a priest. Such trivial matters!"

Well, recycling your spirituality is one thing, perhaps. But a Christian leader standing out against militarism in this world climate? That's seriously encouraging. And to anything other than the shopping-basket mentality, very far from trivial.

[Thanks to Atrios/Eschaton for drawing my attention to this story]

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