Why Are American Politicians Always Switching Religions?
If Newton Leroy Gingrich becomes the Republican candidate for president of the United States, then the 2012 election will be a contest between two men who found new religions fairly late in life. Gingrich is on his third religion: He was raised a Lutheran, later became a Southern Baptist, and in 2009 was received into the Roman Catholic church. President Obama, having been raised in an irreligious home, famously found faith as an adult in Chicago, where he was baptized in 1988 by Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. (of great controversy).
Gingrich and Obama are hardly unique in the annals of contemporary politics. Major American politicians seem unusually promiscuous in their religious affinities, not just switching houses of worship but totally altering the substance of their worship. Beyond Obama and Gingrich, there is George W. Bush, raised by old-line, old-money Episcopalians but born again as an evangelical Protestant in 1985, after an apparently profound talk with Rev. Billy Graham; he and his wife attend a Methodist church. Like many sons of the wild west, Harry Reid, Nevadan and Senate majority leader, is of Protestant stock but was raised largely without religion; as a young newlywed he converted to Mormonism along with his wife, who was Jewish. The list goes on. Bill Clinton was not from a churchgoing family, but growing up “he would walk, Bible in hand, down the street to the Park Place Baptist Church,” writes David Shribman in a Pulitzer-winning article from 1994 about the religiosity of presidents. Ronald Reagan was raised in the Disciples of Christ, a mainstream denomination, but later developed a penchant for referencing apocalyptic prophesies straight out of the Left Behind novels, thus taking a detour into the world that many mainline religion folk would refer to—using the technical term—as far-wackadoo fundamentalism.
But it’s not just that Americans don’t mind a politician who switches religion: It almost seems as if we like it when they do. In that way, it’s natural to wonder whether the two converts of the day, Gingrich and Obama, were actually motivated by a particular electoral strategy. If your mind had a cynical bent, you might ask whether they found religion simply in order to make themselves more electable. But the more interesting question may be how we can gauge the authenticity of any politician’s conversion at all.
DISCLAIMER: I HAVE NO IDEA what magic God has wrought in the hearts of other men. It’s hardly unusual for mainline Protestants to move between Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, or for lapsed Catholics to join up with the Episcopal Church. But politicians’ conversions do tend to be particularly dramatic: One need only contrast American politicians’ public religion-switching with the quieter path taken by Tony Blair, who did not become a Roman Catholic until 2007, when he was no longer prime minister of Britain. And it’s fair to assume that politicians think of everything at least partly in terms of politics. (Again, take Blair as an example: he undoubtedly considered the fact that it would have been potentially scandalous for a sitting prime minister to leave the Church of England, his country’s official church.)
I suspect that Gingrich had several motivations for his conversion to Catholicism. Having shredded his reputation in all sorts of ways, not least by conducting an affair with a Hill staffer during the exact years he was persecuting, and prosecuting, President Clinton for lying about sexual indiscretions, Gingrich was certainly in a position to benefit from a spiritual public face-lift. In 2006 he wrote a book called Rediscovering God in America; in 2007 he went on the radio with evangelical leader James Dobson to apologize to his second wife for his infidelities. In 2009—his current presidential bid drawing ever nearer—he converted to Catholicism.
When Obama, for his part, found Jesus in his Chicago community-organizing days, it likewise must have occurred to him, ambitious fellow that he was, that Christians do somewhat better in national politics than the unchurched. (In a 2007 Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist for president, below the number who would vote for Mormons and even the number who would vote for homosexuals.) And in the short term, Obama must have suspected that his organizing work would be enhanced by his membership in a prominent, black, urban mega-church.