- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

When Vice President Al Gore broke the news on CBS’ “60 Minutes” earlier this month that he was a born-again Christian, the event passed largely unnoticed; it was a mildly interesting glimpse into the thinking of a man whose high-minded motives bespoke religious faith anyway, nothing more. But when would-be Republican President George W. Bush suggested in an Iowa debate that Jesus Christ had “changed my heart,” critics hastily took up arms to defend the country against a seemingly imminent invasion from religious zealots.

Writing in his syndicated column last week, Charles Krauthammer said, “You watch these [Republican presidential] debates, brimming with God talk, and you catch a whiff of the Taliban.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd complained that Mr. Bush was guilty of “exclusionary” attitudes that threatened to lock some people out of the “Christ club.” He made the mistake of saying that it’s hard to explain the role of faith in his life in the space of a sound bite, no less to someone who may not share it. The Episcopal bishop of Iowa, C. Christopher Epting, criticized Mr. Bush’s remarks on Christ as a “turnoff” that indicated “there’s going to be heavy-handed Christianity in the White House.” Leave it to the Episcopal Church to fret about too much Christianity.

Part of the problem here had to do with the question Mr. Bush answered: “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with?” Perhaps its premise was to measure the consistency of the candidate’s choice with his political agenda. Or perhaps it was just supposed to be another pop quiz to see if Mr. Bush could name a political philosopher. In either case, the answer wouldn’t have told voters much about the way Mr. Bush would govern the country. It’s a question better left to sophomore seminars and late-night bull sessions than to candidate debates because their short question-and-answer format doesn’t exactly produce the thoughtful and nuanced discourse the question presumes to invite.

But Mr. Bush also ran afoul of the rather one-sided rules that govern the intersection where politics and religion meet: It is perfectly acceptable for the likes of civil rights activists and environmental advocates to invoke the name of the Almighty in defense of their agenda. It goes on daily in Washington, and no one thinks much about it. But it is not acceptable for conservatives to bring up God because it portends, or so some argue, the creation of a narrow-minded, exclusionary, darkly ominous theocracy in short, a whiff of the Taliban. These rules permit a Bible-toting President Clinton to appear on camera leaving a church. They do not allow George W. Bush to witness to his faith on national television. Mr. Bush is supposed to compartmentalize his life into its religious and secular parts and keep them separate.

The great, well, thinker C.S. Lewis argued against the creation of so-called Christian political parties because the name implied they had cornered the market on religious morality, as witness the criticism of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Better, said Lewis, to elect officials whose principles are informed by religious faith. Mr. Bush has done no more than cite such an influence. Critics are free to measure him and his candidacy by those principles, but he need not apologize for bringing them up.

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