- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 1999

How many American voters or leaders could quickly name a favorite philosopher or thinker who was a strong influence on their lives? When George W. named "Christ," his answer was instant controversy.

Reader, who would you have said?

What's fascinating about the question is that it's so meaningless in a sound-bite age. No matter which philosopher anyone names, it's all but impossible to make a convincing argument for it in a short period of time in a television "debate." A philosopher, by his nature, engages in extended arguments, dependent on logic and belief.

George W.'s reply actually had the ring of authenticity for one basic reason: "Because," he said, "He changed my heart." If there is one thing we have learned about George W., it's that he underwent a religious conversion. He put aside self-destructive behavior, which included excessive boozing. For him, that required a major confrontation with God.

It's not fair to ask a candidate about influential philosophy and exclude his religious beliefs. The separation of church and state in the law does not require a politician or anyone else to mute his religious or philosophical beliefs.

Driving the controversy over George W.'s answer was the argument made eloquently by Allan Keyes that Christ was not political or even a philosopher. To Christians Christ is God, and therefore Truth. But when He threw the money lenders out of the temple, as the Bible recounts it, that was a profoundly political act. The Romans who crucified Him were engaging in politics, too. Politics, after all, is about strategies of power.

What's going on today in American politics is a provocative debate about the relationship of religion and politics in contemporary America. How candid should candidates be about their religion? That's up to each candidate and for the voter to judge accordingly.

One of the raps against George W. is that he's not "spontaneous." But there was nothing canned in his reply to the philosopher question. It's churlish to argue that it's wrong to express in public a faith if the expression is sincere. One man's faith hardly jeopardizes the traditions or the law of pluralism and religious freedom.

Mike McCurry, President Clinton's former press secretary, told an ABC-TV audience that he would rather hear George W. name Christ than, say, Tocqueville or Kierkegaard because the latter two are so "over-cited" that they have become clichs. I would settle for either of them as well. It was Tocqueville who noted that the moral underpinnings of Christianity (building on Judaism) were necessary for maintaining liberty in a democracy. He identified religion as the springboard for public virtue.

Kierkegaard would have been a more eccentric choice. He's considered the father of religious existentialism, and believed that "a leap of faith" was not enough to guide behavior; it was equally important to conduct one's life in harmony with the moral teachings of Christianity. He believed the modern age lacked moral commitment.

Maybe, in our debates about a candidate's religion, we should revive the debate about influential philosophers, too. Philosophy is not a popular course in high school or college these days, which is too bad, because the study of philosophy sharpens the mind for arguments to connect public policy to ethical issues.

Discussions of philosophy, like discussions of religion, challenge and enlarge the mind. They force us to probe deeply into political arguments and their impact on society. We have come through an extremely brutal century. The Enlightenment and the elevation of reason over faith, which once held such promise, did not soften or mellow man's inhumanity to man. This may be the great lesson of the century which dies next week.

The 20th century has been a time of decadence both spiritually and politically. But times of excess are frequently followed by cravings to restore a spiritual order, a rediscovery of the eternal verities. The revival of interest in religion and politics may be an expression of this yearning for renewal.

The philosophers we chose to follow are ultimately personal decisions. William James understood this when he wrote that "philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means."

If George W. Bush has been influenced by Christ because Christ changed his heart and straightened out his behavior, how could any voters hold that against him?

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