- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

The faith of Vice President Al Gore has roots in Baptist revivals in Tennessee, Episcopal chapel at St. Albans School, the fields of Vietnam and a year of searching at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Though no one, perhaps not even Mr. Gore himself, can be sure which counted most, it's clear that the man running for president is comfortable with religion, both at his core and at the campaign strategy table.
"It is an important part of who I am," he tells reporters. And when his campaign remarks verge on testimony, he says, "Forgive me, I'm not proselytizing."
His presidential bid has opened a window on all dimensions of Mr. Gore's spiritual journey. He is a "policy wonk" and Bible-quoter, loyal husband and gay rights advocate, spiritual seeker and political conniver.
His party, which hit a secular zenith in 1988, is home to secular, or nonreligious, activists and homosexual rights leaders. For victory, it still relies on the 28 percent of voters who are "functionally secular."
Yet Mr. Gore has chosen the most visibly religious running mate on a modern presidential ticket, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, and made his first major policy speech last year on faith-based welfare groups.
Back then in the spring of 1999 Gore policy adviser Elaine Kamarck of Harvard said, "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time."
Those who have watched Mr. Gore as a Christian and churchgoer say he is simply being himself.
The Rev. James Wall, an editor of Christian Century, was Illinois manager of Mr. Gore's 1988 presidential primary bid and recalls his effect on supporters in the Midwest contest.
"He encouraged them, got them excited, and afterward I told him how effective he was," Mr. Wall says. "He said, 'That's the Baptist preacher in me.' "
Those who have seen Mr. Gore in church wish others who call him wooden and stiff could see him then.
"I was always impressed by how natural and expressive he was in a church setting," says the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, who led First Baptist Church in Nashville in the 1980s when Mr. Gore visited.
"Al Gore and I have benefited from being mentored by people who had evangelical roots and intellectual openness," says the black pastor.
Before going to Harvard, Mr. Gore attended Baptist churches and revivals during his summers in Tennessee, which his father represented in Congress for 32 years.
During school years, Al was surrounded by the Episcopalian formality and worship of St. Albans School in the District.
In interviews, he has spoken of his youthful discovery of prayer and the gospel of Christ, and conversion to a personal faith in Christ that came as a junior at Harvard in 1968, when he "felt a transformational relationship with my own interpretation of God, and Christ in God."
He saw the Vietnam War for five months as an Army journalist, and with a one-year Rockefeller scholarship sought "to intensively explore the questions" it raised by studying religion at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
It was 1970, a year when cutting-edge theology saw the church as a vehicle for social change, welcomed religious pluralism, and showcased the new liberation theologies political, feminist and sexual.
"Gore is an effective, non-revolutionary, child of the '60s. Groping, curious, spiritually minded," says Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who knew the vice president's father.
"At college, you are confronted by many religious traditions," he says. "You eventually allow that God has not left all other faiths in darkness. It happened to me, and it happened to him."
At Vanderbilt, Mr. Gore also took a course on theology and the natural sciences, which may have ignited his interest in ecology.
By 1977, Mr. Gore and his wife, Tipper, an Episcopalian reared in Arlington, Va., had moved to Washington for his first term in Congress. They attended Baptist churches, and the next year she led a congressional wives task force on violence and indecency in the media.
In 1985, Mr. Gore became a senator, and around the period was baptized by full immersion, in the Baptist tradition, and began attending regularly his wife's church, Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Crystal City, Va.
In those years, the Southern Baptist Convention was being won over by theological and political conservatives who vied with the "moderates," often identified with Jimmy Carter, a Baptist and a Democrat.
"We are clearly moderate," says the Rev. Martha Phillips, interim minister of the 170-member Mount Vernon.
Over the years, she says, Mr. Gore has attended regularly, usually leaving right after worship.
"The thing that has impressed me is that he comes and nobody bothers him," she says.
Mr. Gore says that his son's brush with death when struck by a car in 1989 deepened his spiritual reflection, and was a force behind his desire to write a visionary book for the future generation.
The result was "Earth in the Balance," a 1992 best seller. Editors at Houghton Mifflin say Mr. Gore wanted to sprinkle his spiritual ideas throughout the book, but was urged to put them in one chapter, "Environmentalism of the Spirit."
Some Christian conservatives argue that the Gore book espoused universalism that all religions are equal and condoned the pantheism of Gaia theology, which says Earth and its biosphere are a living organism in which God dwells.
However, most criticism came on the book's Draconian proposals of a "Global Marshall Plan" to save resources and species.
The book is the era's most Christian manifesto on environmentalism, Mr. Wall says. "It has a strongly Judeo-Christian orientation," he says. "It focuses on the biblical notion of stewardship, care of the creation."
The book uses Bible stories and professes a Christian faith, but also rejects dualism, the idea that God is separate from creation, or that spirit is separate from body.
Liberal theologians also attack dualism, saying it gave rise to patriarchy, caused man to "dominate" nature, and created fears of sexual pleasure as the "embodiment" of God.
Since joining the Clinton ticket in 1992, Mr. Gore has more strongly supported the rights of homosexuals, saying, "God made them as they are." Mrs. Gore ended her moral crusade in 1992 because, critics said, it offended the rich donors in Hollywood who contribute heavily to Democratic candidates.
Recently, as he declared he was "born again" on "60 Minutes," Mr. Gore also has assured atheists that this does not mean intolerance.
He defended religious tolerance in a 1994 speech in the Virginia statehouse, saying values cannot thrive in a "dry secularism, devoid of mystery and passion."
But he also chided traditionalism. "I believe that God is too powerful and too mysterious to be contained within the rigid orthodoxy of any religious faith," he says.
Despite such ecumenism, he has vilified religious conservatives, calling them "the extra-chromosome right wing," suggesting they are mentally retarded.
"Al Gore is the classic Southern Baptist," says political scientist John Green. "What he says is often novel, but not heretical."
Mr. Green says that President Clinton, who sang in the choir at the decidedly traditionalist Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, won office with a third of the evangelical vote, mainly among "nontraditionalists," or more liberal, believers.
A major poll this spring, however, showed that Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican who is a born-again Methodist, was winning six in 10 of those nontraditionalists.
"Gore needs that evangelical vote," Mr. Green says. "I think he's going after the nontraditionalists."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide