Politics in the pew, the pew in politics

President Bush's veto of a stem-cell research bill on religious and moral grounds is a sign of how much faith has infused US politics. In Congress, recent votes on a measure to define marriage saw many lawmakers citing God's will. Such examples raise the question: What's an appropriate mix of religion and politics?

The nation may soon find out.

The 2006 election campaign could be a test of how much this democracy tolerates political appeals to religious views. Democrats, after losing the 2004 presidential race, plan to capture more religious voters with bolder expressions of faith and moral values when talking about policy issues. They saw how the GOP rallied conservative Christians to the polls, giving a win to Mr. Bush and other Republicans. New polls indicate that Democrats may find similar electoral strength in reaching out to the "religious left."

Many voters still take notice of a candidate's religion or expressions of piety – too often negatively. A Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll in June found 10 percent of adults unwilling to vote for a Catholic as president; 15 percent wouldn't vote for a Jew; 21 percent would not favor an evangelical Christian; 37 percent would not vote for a Mormon; and 54 percent ruled out voting for a Muslim.

Before this escalating piety in politics politics goes too far and further polarizes society along religious lines, the US needs a new consensus on boundaries to prevent theological warfare. A good foundation was laid out in a June 28 speech by Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois. In it, he calls for a serious debate about how to "reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic society."

He also calls on Democrats who cater to secular Americans to understand that 90 percent of voters believe in God and 70 percent are affiliated with organized religion. "This religious tendency ... speaks to ... a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause," Senator Obama said.

He says Americans want a sense of purpose to relieve a chronic loneliness and "need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them." Most people are dedicated to finding God's truth, he said, and that "is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values."

He asks Democrats not to become preachy or express false piety, and to acknowledge that religion solves many problems – gang violence, teenage pregnancy, bigotry – where government often fails. Laws are "a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

For religious conservatives, he reminds them that religion is protected because government does not favor one faith over another.

But here is his most critical point:

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason."

Finding a place for religious ideals in the public square takes a delicate sense of proportion.

Religion cannot be used for political attack. Rather politics should be used to reconcile "the beliefs of each with the good of all," as the young senator from Illinois stated so well.

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