In one sense, I think spirituality is more desirable in a president than religion alone, although I hasten to add that both of them together would be the best of all possible worlds.
Evaluating religion and the presidency tempts a contrast of the hardly-ever-in-church Ronald Reagan with the very religious Jimmy Carter. Clearly, Reagan had the “successful” presidency and Carter did not. However, thinking people would recognize that events – not faith – explain most of the differences in popularity of both men than faith. After all, the inflation and hostage-taking that tarnished Carter’s four years are not linked to his Baptist religion I think a more fruitful approach is to examine the dynamics of spirituality and religion. How does a president ‘interiorize’ commitments? (= spirituality). Does the president actively belong to a community of believers? (= religion).
It’s easy to forget the differences between spirituality and religion. For example, Abraham Lincoln gets credit for speeches that exude biblical cadence and trust in God. Yet Honest Abe in real life would be classified today as a “freethinker,” who, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had serious doubts about organized religion. In fact, Lincoln’s “spirituality” is linked historically with his wife’s invitation to Spiritualist séances in the White House. (Such cultivation of non-Christian religion was repeated when Nancy Reagan consulted with an astrologer about how to set up her husband’s daily schedule.)
In one sense, I think spirituality is more desirable in a president than religion alone, although I hasten to add that both of them together would be the best of all possible worlds. The virtue produced by this match is defined with the Latin word, “pius.” This term ought not to be translated as “pious” – a better sense of its meaning is “loyal.” I would not claim that such a person is a saint: only that they are trying to be a saint.
Loyalty to religious tenets predicts the candidate’s likely priorities when in office and prevents spirituality from detachment from reality. This explains for me why President George W. Bush’s expressed religious commitments have been so disastrous to the country. While professing to be “spiritual,” he has wandered far from the teachings of the Methodist faith in terms of the war in Iraq and social welfare programs. In another case, Senator Obama resigned from Trinity Church in Chicago, because he said in effect that his spirituality did not allow him to remain loyal to the preaching in that faith community.
From my Catholic perspective, a pius Catholic politician would promise to preserve the “seamless web of life” — a difficult standard for partisan politics. As a Catholic voter, I am somewhat relieved that in 2008 none of the major presidential candidates is a Catholic. My electoral decision will evaluate the candidates on the issue of who is pius as defined above. Right now, I would consider Methodist Hillary Clinton to best fit that description. My own Catholicism has not prevented me from admiring the inner core of the Methodist faith as one both organized and disciplined (hence the name akin to “methodical”). Methodists have a long and enviable history in the U.S. for social justice ministry. Clearly, Senator Hillary Clinton has been “loyal” to those precepts in ways that George W. Bush has not. Methodism has shaped her commitments in public life. I would add that she bears the imprint of Methodist spirituality as well. She becomes the model for the type of president who would profess a spirituality grounded in religious faith. Now, as she leaves the race for the White House to Senators Obama and McCain, I would hope that one of them would pick up the mantle of “pius.”