Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Religion and Politics Still Wed

Those odd bedfellows, religion and politics, just can't seem to get a divorce.

For example, a long-time supporter of atheistic counterparts, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has turned to religion for inspiration in his battle against cancer.  When he appeared on television, Chavez (right) waved around a crucifix and said that cancer has made him “more Christian.”  His timing is patently obvious.  Elections are coming in his decidedly Catholic country, and he may have found a way to retain his office.

"Given that he cannot hide the illness, but he can hide its characteristics and danger, he's decided to take as much advantage of it as he can, and one advantage is the symbolic and religious issue," Luis Vicente Leon, a Venezuelan pollster and analyst, told CNN. "He'll present himself as the chosen one, the man who has been cured and healed by the Lord to continue governing the country."

"It's like a pact with God, with Christ, my Lord," said Chavez, who was raised Catholic but has clashed with Church leaders while in office. "I'm sure He will lay on a hand so that this treatment, which we're rigorously following, will have supreme success."

Fascinating.  Turning to religion to help win an election?  Where have we seen that before?  That’s right – virtually every American presidential election since Jimmy Carter told Playboy magazine that he lusted after other women “in his heart.”

A devout Southern Baptist, Carter (left) happily touted his faith.  Unfortunately, religion turned out to be a poor mentor once the Georgian got into office.  Ousted after one term, he was followed by Ronald Reagan who happily talked about his Christian faith while quietly heeding the guidance of astrologers.

The climax to all this religious infusion came in 2008 when Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama faced off with dueling ministers – each one listening to ranting religious leaders until the media caught wind of what their pious guides were actually saying.

The furor over faith hasn’t disappeared this time around.  Likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney has been touting his religious credentials and gaining endorsements from such religion-driven politicos like former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who spent half a year blasting Romney, and from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who agreed that Romney’s Mormon faith is a cult before blithely endorsing the former Massachusetts’ governor’s presidential run.

The whole thing reminds me of a story in the Talmud, the Jewish collection of interpretations of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible.)  There’s only one light anecdote in the Talmud’s many volumes, but it relates.

An ancient sage recalled meeting a man in a hurry.  The rabbi asks what the rush is.  The man says that he was bitten by a snake and was racing to find Jesus to save him. 

The rabbi was asked what happened.  He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  The man died.”

The joke, of course, was that Jesus couldn’t really cure anyone, even Chavez.  It’s really mind over matter, which is what has been shown at the great shrines like Lourdes.  Actually, of the estimated 200 million people who have journeyed there since the shrine was founded in 1858, the Church recognizes that only 67 people have been cured; only four of those have come after 1978.

As author Robert Scott noted in his book Miracle Cures: Saints, Pilgrimage and the Healing Power of Belief, commenting on medieval trips to sainted shrines: “Many common infectious illnesses at that time may have naturally run their course whether or not the sufferer had gone to appeal to a saint. However, a pilgrimage offered changes in diet, climate and living conditions, and, in bonding with fellow travelers, a temporary relief from the shame associated with disease.”

He added:

If the sufferers went on pilgrimage, prayed to a saint, and in the end felt better for it, it does not matter whether the recovery was due to spontaneous remission or the natural course of illness. From the pilgrims’ point of view, they took action, and it made them feel better; therefore they concluded that what they did had helped.

Pilgrims were sincere when the shrine first opened 154 years ago and still are now.  Chavez is more like Dutch Schultz (right), the noted Jewish gangster of the 1920s and 1930s who converted to Christianity just prior to his trial on income tax evasion to successfully sway an upstate New York jury.   Or Henry IV, who converted from Protestant Calvinism to Catholicism in 1593 to gain a throne, saying “France is well worth a Mass.”

He also resembles Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega whose campaign rallies included religious processions, chants and the campaign slogan "Christian, Socialist and In Solidarity." Catholic Church leaders obviously recognized cynicism at play, calling the effort “part of a ploy to deceive voters.”

Chavez is likely to win election in a country close to 100 percent Catholic.  American political leaders following his lead may not have the same success in this country where Christianity is represents about 78 percent of the population and has been steadily declining.

Not that such a reality will stop them.  “God help America if Obama wins re-election,” said Gov. Rick Perry.

Of course, God may be too busy with Chavez to step in.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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