Why line is fading between politics and piety

Candidates on both sides invoke faith on stump for strategic gain. Is it too much?

"In God we trust" - it's an American belief as common as the motto on your $10 bill.

This country is the most religiously observant in the Western industrialized world, and of all true-believing nations, the United States is the most tolerant of religious diversity.

Why, then, the recent flap over the overt - almost incessant - expressions of faith by the presidential candidates and their running mates? What's behind the apparent injection of religion into the presidential campaign?

For both parties, it seems, the move is calculated - a conscious decision not just to be up front about belief and faith, but aimed at winning votes in November.

For the newly diverse GOP, it's a way of shoring up the fundamentalist wing while sticking its opponents to the tar baby of Bill Clinton's moral failings. More important, for the Democrats it's a means of closing a glaring gap in the public perception of their party.

On the surface, Al Gore's picking Joe Lieberman (who regularly invokes God on the stump) as his running mate seems risky. So does GOP vice-presidential candidate Richard Cheney's references to Christ, made this week in his talk to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Kansas City, Mo. It is not a paradox that keeping politics free from religious influence is a conviction held just about as strongly as belief in the Divine. This is evidenced by the criticisms of Mr. Lieberman this week by the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, plus the ongoing flap over organized "spontaneous" prayer at high school football games.

A new Gallup poll reports that "Americans are reluctant ... to mix religion and politics."

So why do it?

According to Stanley Greenberg, the pollster Mr. Gore listens to most closely these days, Democrats suffer a big gap in how people see the two parties in terms of virtues and values. Americans are much more likely to associate Republicans with "faith in God" - by 40 percent to 22 percent. And in religiously related areas such as personal responsibility and teaching children about right and wrong, the Democrats are markedly behind the Republicans as well, according to Mr. Greenberg.

"At a time when the electorate is increasingly open to the Democrats as a party of sensible investment, the party has lost ground in the battle over values," he says. With two-thirds of Americans believing that "religion can answer all or most of today's problems," according to Gallup, this gap could be important on election day.

In a recent article in The American Prospect magazine, written with Anna Greenberg of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Greenberg offers this advice: "To be heard, Democrats must honor religious traditions that teach right and wrong, discipline, responsibility, and respect. Democrats must rediscover the family, where children are nurtured and learn their lessons and values. And finally, Democrats must make clear their motivation in the public realm: to promote policies that help people realize their hopes and dreams for their own families."

Gore and especially Lieberman have been hitting that problem head-on ever since the party's convention in Los Angeles. "My parents taught me that the real values in life aren't material but spiritual," Gore said in his nomination acceptance speech. "They include family, faith, duty, and honor, and trying to make the world a better place."

Speaking at the Detroit Fellowship Chapel last Sunday, Lieberman said, "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."

At an interfaith breakfast the next day in Chicago, he said, "This is the most religious country in the world, and sometimes we try to stifle that fact or hide it. But the profound and ultimately most important reality is that we are not only citizens of this blessed country, we are citizens of the same awesome God."

The Republican team - at least since George W. Bush's naming Jesus as his favorite philosopher and flirting with the controversial Bob Jones University - has taken a more subdued tack. Mr. Cheney's stump speech and informal talks - especially with students - include frequent references to "integrity," "honor," "dignity," "character." These are made without reference to the White House sex scandal, but the message is clear.

Speaking to a convention of B'Nai B'Rith on Monday, Mr. Bush said, "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division."

THE question is whether any of these utterances go too far in blurring the line between church and state. Sociologist Daniel Dreisberg, who studies religious history at American University in Washington, D.C., notes that George Washington devoted much of his first inaugural address to issues of religion and faith. He sees the latest professions, including Lieberman's, as just the latest in a "long tradition."

But others see dangers. Frank Kirkpatrick, a religion professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., says Lieberman seems at times to be suggesting that religion is necessary for morality. "What crosses the line is to suggest that we can't have morality without religion," he says. "There are many profoundly moral people in the US who aren't religious."

Certainly, politicians do walk a fine line when mixing piety and politics. Frank Luntz, a pollster who works mostly for Republican candidates, ran focus groups during both conventions. He says that when speakers spoke in general religious terms, the response was positive. When they invoked religion to tout a cause or specific policy, the response was negative.

As for the common perception that Americans are uneasy with religion worn on a politician's sleeve, that may be changing.

"In recent times, most Americans have come to accept that there is no harm, and often much good, in the political involvement of people of faith.... Americans have grown increasingly tolerant of closer links between religion and politics," say the authors of a new book, "The Diminishing Divide: Religion's Changing Role in American Politics."

So far at least, the race for the White House seems to be proving this true.

*Material from Reuters was included in this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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