Ordinarily we hold our presidents to a very low bar when it comes to religion. Of course, we require that they be nominally "Christian," and we're unforgiving on this essential criterion. No atheist or agnostic (or non-Christian) has a chance of being elected much of anything in our country. • But once they clear that first low hurdle, our presidents are pretty much free to practice their religions with whatever level of devotion suits them. John F. Kennedy's Catholicism threatened to be a factor during his 1960 campaign, but only in retrospect did we discover how little did Kennedy, whatever his virtues, bind himself by his church's strictest standards of personal behavior.
Lyndon B. Johnson was a member of the Disciples of Christ and Richard Nixon was a Quaker. It's not our place to judge their piety, but neither was famous for practicing the Christian values that we esteem: humility, patience, honesty and charity. In fact, both were liars, connivers and practitioners of some of the most profane, un-Christian utterances ever recorded in the Oval Office.
It's odd: We demand that presidents be Christians, but we're not particularly upset — or even surprised — when they don't make much of an effort to live up to traditional Christian values.
What if our presidents began to hew more closely to the principles that Jesus actually taught? I wonder how we would feel about a president who actually followed Christ's directive to avoid resisting an evil person, to "turn the other cheek," rather than demanding "an eye for an eye." Jesus said that if someone demands your tunic, let him have your cloak, as well. Come to think of it, President Barack Obama's acquiescence to the Republicans over the debt limit may have been the most Christian act we've seen from the White House in some time.
What if a president took the phrase "Blessed are the meek" seriously and therefore had trouble embracing the concept of American exceptionalism?
Jesus used a whip to drive the money changers from the temple, but modern America is all about money changing. No American president can be very interested in laying up treasures in heaven; Americans demand treasures a little closer to home, in the stock market, low taxes and low interest rates. The poor? Jesus said sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Taxes? Jesus said "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's."
And God help the president who remembers that the early Christians held all things in common. Socialists!
But in general our Christian presidents don't pay much attention to the finer points of Christianity. In fact, about the only Christian principle that politicians of both parties have taken seriously during the last couple of decades is articulated by Christ himself in Matthew 4:25: "For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath." So much for the middle class.
If the past is any indication, we probably don't need to worry too much about the impact any candidate's religion will have on his or her presidency, not even Texas Gov. Rick Perry's, who this past weekend shook up the race by declaring his candidacy. Perry's evangelicalism reaches out to his party's right, and so far he's played the religion card well. In April in the middle of a severe drought Perry encouraged Texans to pray for rain. The rain falls on the just and the unjust — we have plenty of both in Texas. The fact that it hasn't fallen on either hasn't seemed to hurt Perry so far.
Perry believes that our nation has some problems that can be solved only by Jesus. This position will resonate with some citizens, but just in case Jesus lets us down, I hope voters will be interested in whether Perry has a Plan B.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.
© 2011 Scripps Howard News Service