A large ripple is moving through the presidential campaign after George W. Bush gave a thought-provoking answer during Monday's Republican debate in Iowa.
When asked to name his most influential political philosopher, the Texas governor responded that it was Jesus Christ. He didn't elaborate much, except to say that Christ "changed my heart." He came across as sincere.
In the Republican primaries, where evangelical Christians carry a strong influence on who wins, this comment is being widely analyzed for its authenticity, its meaning, and its ricochet effect on other candidates and media coverage.
There's nothing new about American political leaders invoking religion. George Washington, in his inaugural address of 1789, sought the blessing on the nation of "that Almighty Being who rules over the universe - who presides in the councils of nations - and whose providential aids can supply every human defect."
But in the last 20 years - starting perhaps with Ronald Reagan's appeal to fundamental Christians and later spurred on by Bill Clinton's immoral behavior - more candidates are finding a key segment of voters willing to hear about religious convictions. Anti-abortion advocates have often forced candidates to take a stand on a basic issue of life. The media, too, including Hollywood, are less reluctant these days to show how faith plays out in people's lives.
All this explains why a candidate's character is now weighed equally with his political stands on issues of state. John McCain is running TV ads that tell how he composed a Christmas sermon while a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Al Gore identifies himself as a born-again Christian and calls for partnerships between government and faith-based organizations.
The only leading contender who refuses, so far, to talk about personal religious belief is Bill Bradley, although his past writings reveal a sometimes large role for religion in his life.
This focus on religion can be viewed a number of ways:
*As a political tactic. Candidates are sharply aware of the boost that displays of faith can play in most Republican contests and many Democratic ones.
*As an affront to the American tradition of keeping church and state separate.
*Or as a legitimate element in the examination of character that many Americans believe is central to choosing a leader.
Each of these perspective warrants attention. If a candidate's references to God or Jesus don't ring true, voters will perceive the tinniness. They should be equally put off if a candidate's religious conviction seems likely to become a primary driver of policy, rather than an inner moral compass that helps shape public debate within a democracy. More and more, government leaders are being asked to pass judgment on troubling issues such as genetic engineering.
And character? A candidate's religious beliefs that shape his or her behavior are worth knowing. But public statements of piety may reveal little about qualities of character - such as moral courage and tolerance of differing views - that define leadership, as well as safeguard religious freedom.
George Washington had those qualities to a remarkable degree. Those who've followed him in office have sometimes ranged far from his example. In a nation founded on high ideals and basic principles, it's easy for leaders to invoke the name of God to keep the country on track - or to help them get elected.
But as the United States has become more multi-denominational with a large portion of nonbelievers, the mixing of religion and politics has become more problematic. The 1960 election of a Roman Catholic president (John F. Kennedy) was a watershed in defining a line between a leader's deepest personal convictions and his public actions.
Knowing what to render unto Caesar and what unto God requires wisdom of any president. Candidates who reduce religion to a sound bite may not understand that.
Such matters may pop up only during early presidential primaries, when political Christian coalitions that can "get out the vote" want to see their beliefs mirrored in a candidate.
Still, we hope the candidates exercise restraint by wearing religion more in their hearts and less on their sleeves. The US, after all, is electing a president, not a preacher, who will run a country, not a church. Faith is a personal guide best seen in action.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society