Campaigning for president ... or for preacher?

Public's concern over values leads candidates to wear their religion

Four years ago, Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm faced intense pressure from the religious conservative leaders to focus more on morals, less on economics.

The response from Mr. Gramm, a senator from Texas, was unequivocal: "I ain't running for preacher. That's your job."

Gramm's well-financed campaign flamed out famously - not least because he failed to court a core GOP constituency, the Christian right.

Now, talk of values and personal salvation is the daily stuff of the 2000 presidential race. Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) openly speaks of how "the Lord has made a big difference" in his life, both personal and public. Elizabeth Dole talks about a sense of "spiritual starvation" that pervaded her life before she became born-again.

Most striking, Vice President Al Gore has joined the bandwagon of personal testimony, speaking often of his Southern Baptist beliefs and urging a greater role for faith-based groups in solving persistent social problems.

Democrats have traditionally avoided mixing religion and politics, but polls are showing a growing public acceptance of this more holistic view of tackling issues - and only the civil libertarians have raised objections to Mr. Gore's ideas.

"Basically, they're all running for preacher!" says Jeff Bell, a top adviser to conservative GOP candidate Gary Bauer.

In a way, all the religion talk is a sign of the times. If the economy were sour, that would be Topic A. But with economic good times and with the war in Kosovo perhaps turning a corner, Americans can comfortably turn to the softer arena of morals and values.

The school shootings in Colorado and Georgia certainly give such themes added oomph. And candidates are more than happy to oblige: The more they can talk about themselves and the moral state of the nation, the less they have to come out with specific policy proposals.

For Gore, talk of faith and its role in the public sphere serves to contrast him with Bill Clinton and his character issues. The president tends not to discuss his religiosity so openly and has never been as explicit as Gore has about giving public money to religious organizations for welfare-to-work and violence-prevention programs.

"This may be one way that [Gore] can perhaps lay aside some of the remnants of the impeachment effort and Mr. Clinton's problems," says James Guth, an expert on politics and religion at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

Gore's recent religious talk - and a recent group interview with religion writers - also seems to be a way to subtly remake his image, from a stiff technocrat excited about technology and science into a more feeling, multidimensional person.

"I believe that faith in itself is sometimes essential to spark a personal transformation," Gore said in a speech last month at a Salvation Army event.

In that speech, Gore proposed what he called a "New Partnership" that would expand the ability of religious groups to bid on government contracts in areas of combatting homelessness, youth violence, and drug addiction. The plan borrows from a Republican amendment to the 1996 welfare-reform law that allows religious groups to receive public money to run programs in job training and other welfare-to-work services.

Gore gave assurances that the Constitution's mandated separation of church and state would be maintained under his proposal. But some watchdog groups are skeptical. Only now are faith-based groups beginning to get public money for welfare-reform programs, and Barry Lynn, head of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says there will be lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of such funding.

Some analysts have suggested that by jumping into the religious fray, Gore is essentially neutralizing the issue. His senior policy adviser, Elaine Kamarck, was quoted recently as saying that "the Democratic Party is going to take back God this time."

Civil libertarians such as Mr. Lynn find such talk outrageous. "When Gore says, 'Well, I'm religious,' then the next candidate says, 'Well, I'm religious, too," and it becomes a fight over who's more religious," says Lynn. "That is not the basis for voting for the presidency."

Even some people on the religious right are not happy about all the religion talk. "What we're seeing ... is the trivialization of religion," commentator Cal Thomas said recently on television.

But the public doesn't seem to mind - and polling shows that attitudes are shifting about the mixing of church and politics. In 1996, a Pew Research Center poll showed 54 percent of Americans believe churches should discuss political issues, with 43 percent opposed. In 1965, a similar Gallup poll found that 53 percent of the public said churches should not discuss politics.

The point isn't that Americans are becoming more religious. It's that they're more interested in nongovernmental solutions to problems, says Mr. Guth.

What's happening now, he says, is "the Democrats in many cases don't want the Christian right of the Republican Party to have the corner on all these nongovernmental solutions."

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