So in the small town of Leakey, Texas, a local church changed their marque to read ‘Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! Vote for the Capitalist, not the Communist!’. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in some controversy.
Since the church changes its marque every week, theoretically whatever controversy it’s stirred up should end this weekend, and a new sign will appear next week. The church’s pastor has said that the signage is entirely and exclusively written by him, but as many people have already pointed out, the church is a tax-exempt non-profit, and that status comes with certain obligations, among them that they cannot endorse a political candidate. Although the sign doesn’t mention a candidate by name, its intent would seem obvious, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to read its message as anything other than a political endorsement.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I don’t even want to talk about the factual inaccuracy of the sign – I’m assuming the President is ‘the Muslim’; however, as I’ve talked about before, President Obama is not a Muslim, at least not by the standards of Islamic law. And as far as I’m aware, both President Obama and Governor Romney are capitalists, and neither of them has ever said anything suggesting they’d support Communism.
Instead, I’d like to reiterate that people aren’t defined by their religious identity (or their preferred socio-economic model, for that matter). President Obama and Governor Romney have, in some cases, vastly different opinions about social and political issues, as well as about the best form of American identity or the best course for this nation’s future, but despite ten years’ of work in religious studies, I’d be hard-pressed to attach almost any of those differences to the differences in their religion. Picking candidates based on their religion is problematic, because people of the same self-declared religion can have wildly different beliefs. For example, Jim Wallis and the late Jerry Falwell both identified as evangelical Protestants, they are of the same generation, and in their lifetimes have both been involved in politics, but they agree on practically nothing when it comes to social or ‘family’ issues.
Especially in election years, we tend to rely heavily on constituency to understand people’s beliefs – race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and socio-economic class feature heavily in how we define people, and what we expect people to think. As problematic as that system is, it becomes even more so when we treat any one of those constituencies as the sole dictator of a person’s beliefs. President Obama is an African-American and a Christian, and probably some of his opinions and beliefs stem from him being African-American and from him being a Christian, and from him being an Africa-American Christian, but those constituencies will never account for anything close to 100% of his opinions and beliefs.
Pundits and campaigners spend a lot of their time trying to predict how people will vote, and they may be right that a Muslim, lesbian woman of color is likely to support the President because of one or all of those categories, but it seems like more and more we’re trying to extrapolate from that identity more and more assumptions about her beliefs. Yes, some of her opinions or actions will track back to those identities, but many more will relate to her education or her circumstances, her preference or her imagination, her dislike of the cold or her love of cherry ice cream.
I admit, as a moderate American raised by moderate Americans, I was raised to believe that you should vote for the person, not for the party, and I know that opinion is not universally held in the US. But in these last few weeks leading up to the election, we at least should all agree that you’re voting for a person, not for a string of adjectives.
 And before you say such an animal does not exist, my Exhibit A.