Religion and the American Presidency

(U-WIRE) ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Among the surprises in this year’s presidential campaign, none has been greater than the emergence of religion as an issue of dramatic import. All but dormant since 1960, when John F. Kennedy confronted voters with the then-daunting prospect of a Roman Catholic president, religion once again has come to the fore of American politics. At the outset of the campaign, however, nothing suggested that would be the case. Among Democrats, presidential hopeful Bill Bradley made it clear that he would keep his religion private, and Vice President Al Gore, after identifying and describing his faith, made little effort to publicize it.
Early on, even George W. Bush and John McCain, two of some six Republicans seeking claim to the GOP’s nomination, hardly resembled hardline Religious Right candidates, despite solid anti-abortion records.
But in the months that followed, religion sidled into the political arena and became a mainstay of candidates’ campaign platforms — a sure-fire way of establishing voter support and appealing to a broad spectrum of (Christian) Americans. Early in the primary season, both Bush and Gore won broad praise for the proposed increased use of faith-based organizations — in cooperation with the government (of course) — in tackling the nation’s toughest problems, including drugs, crime and homelessness. Their treatment of these issues, and their appeals to faith-based assistance, showed a lucid understanding of, and respect for, the constitutional principles defining the relationship between Church and State.
As the campaign progressed, however, both Bush and Gore modified their political strategies. Whereas religion previously was but an aspect of the candidates’ personal lives, and perhaps the barometer of their respective convictions, faith suddenly became a political lobbying tool.
For Bush, the aim was to present himself as a Christian that anyone — even a Democrat — could like. Bush began using religion as a means to speak to the political center. By presenting his views as faith-based and his platform as morally guided, Bush gave himself a way to duck divisive issues. In a debate among Republican hopefuls, Bush stated that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher. Perhaps that is true, but surely there were other answers Bush could have given that would not have showcased his faith. In February, Bush visited Bob Jones University in South Carolina, whose religious exploits include a ban on interracial dating among students and the castigation of the Catholic Church. Bush remained silent on these issues until after he had left the campus — a “missed opportunity” for which he later apologized. And in April, as governor, he proclaimed June 10 “Jesus Day” in Texas, exhibiting a blatant abuse of his power as a public official. To millions of evangelical Christians, the way Bush talks, especially about how finding Christ helped him stop drinking, is familiar, even endearing.
That does not make it right.
George W. Bush was not alone in his quest to evangelize the Oval Office. Vice President Gore, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, says that he makes no decision without asking himself what Jesus would do. And Joseph Lieberman, for his part, just this week faced scrutiny from the Anti-Defamation League, which urged the vice presidential nominee to avoid expressions of religious values and beliefs in his campaign. Without question, the statement issued to Lieberman by the Anti-Defamation League is completely on the mark. For while “candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to others,” the league said in their statement, “there is a point at which an emphasis on religion becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society as ours.”
In Lieberman’s defense, his religion could not help but be discussed when he was chosen as Gore’s running mate. As the first member of his faith to be a nominee for either president or vice president on a major party’s ticket, Lieberman represents a political anomaly, his religious faith a symbol of his political integrity. Having embraced religion as the means to attract voters, however, Lieberman would be much obliged to retreat a step, and establish himself as something other than an Orthodox Jew. It is one thing to disclose religious conviction, and quite another to flaunt and exploit it.
It goes without saying that religion is a powerful force in American life. Many Americans are as diverse in their religious views as others are fervent, and some are not religious at all. This juxtaposition and seeming contradiction of diversity and fervor has been able to exist in America because, to a surprising extent in a country as religious as ours, questions of faith have been left out of politics. Bush, Gore, Lieberman, and to a lesser extent Cheney, should see that it’s kept that way.
Travis Gosselin’s column originally appeared in the University of Washington at St. Louis’ The Student Life on Sept. 5. Send comments to [email protected]