In a brilliant video lecture about the emergence of systems thinking, with a starting point in the early Middle Ages, the late Russ Ackoff explains why medieval peasants were attracted to Roman Catholicism: On average people lived to be twenty five years old, and about fifty percent of newborns died during childbirth or soon thereafter. Until the crusades most people didn’t travel farther than two miles from the place where they were born, and they were constantly threatened by wars, famine, the plague and other diseases. It didn’t seem as if living on earth had a lot of value, which is why a religion that told them that life on earth is only a brief portal for an eternal existence in heaven, provided that certain conditions are met, made all the sense in the world. Ackoff doesn’t pretend to give a full explanation of religion as a social and cultural phenomenon, and rightfully so, because the medieval conditions he describes are long gone from the industrialized world, but religion is still here, with all its fantasies about God, creation, penitence, absolution, salvation, hell, heaven and an eternal life.
In the US constitution it says that nobody can be denied the presidency on religious grounds, a logical consequence of the separation of church and state. As a result, it is almost unheard of that candidates are attacked or criticized for their religious beliefs. JFK still had to assure doubters that a Roman Catholic could be President, with a speech in which he declared that he would not take instructions from the Pope, but Mitt Romney’s weird religion, Mormonism, was off limits during the 2008 presidential campaign. Still, it looks as if something will be different in the current race to the White House. Dr. Ben Carson violated the code by declaring that a Muslim would be unfit to be President, and although he tried to walk that statement back he opened a can of worms that will be hard to close. Carson didn’t do himself a favor, because as a Seventh Day Adventist he is more vulnerable to criticism than any of the other candidates. His church takes the bible literally, first predicted the Second Coming in 1844, and espouses the belief that Christians who celebrate the sabbath on Sunday are headed straight for the inferno.
Now that Carson has overtaken the lead in the Iowa polls from Donald Trump, apparently because of the support he receives from Evangelicals, Trump has started to sow doubt about the doctor’s suitability for the presidency. Touting his own credentials as a Presbyterian Trump calls his church ‘middle of the road,’ and says he ‘doesn’t know’ about Seventh Day Adventism, leaving it up to the voters to look into Carson’s convictions and find the questionable spots.
There is no telling how far Trump will go if he falls farther behind, even though probably more people are surprised about the fact that Trump considers himself a Christian than about Carson’s religious goofiness. On the Democratic side Hillary is safe as a Methodist, but Sanders has some vulnerability as an atheist, which won’t be relevant until he makes it to the general election.
There are positive and negative aspects to the way religion now plays a part in the campaign. Nobody’s beliefs should keep that person from becoming President, but it’s good to know if the future Commander in Chief believes that the world is 4000 years old and was created in six days.