Thursday, February 5, 2004

In an attempt to compete with President Bush’s unabashed discussion of religion while in office, Democratic presidential candidates are making similar stabs at God-talk.

So far, there’s little debate as to who is winning on the faith front. While Mr. Bush discusses his faith this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is still recovering from his Jan. 2 misidentification of Job as a book in the New Testament.

Since that gaffe, other candidates have shied away from much discussion on the topic. But the issue is sure to rise again with more books due out this spring on Mr. Bush’s transparent Christian faith.

Religion is not necessarily the trump card in a political race. The most religious Democratic candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an Orthodox Jew, dropped out of the race Tuesday night.

Nevertheless, Americans prefer at least a whiff of religion in their politicians, according to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll conducted in July. Sixty-two percent of the 2,002 adults polled said the president mentions his faith in just the right amounts, compared with 14 percent who said he mentions it too much and 11 percent who said he didn’t mention it enough.

Twenty-one percent said they would like to see religion play more of a role in the president’s policy-making. His opponents must then decide how much of their own convictions are safe to reveal.

And so, in a departure from previous American political campaigns, some candidates played up their Jewish roots. Voters now know that Mr. Dean’s wife and children are Jewish, the paternal grandparents of Sen. John Kerry, of Massachusetts, were Jewish and Wesley Clark’s father was Jewish.

“Apparently, while being Jewish used to be associated with greed, disloyalty and pushiness, it now is associated with good SATs, strong families, sober facial expressions,” said a satirical essay by Steven Waldman on the religious Web site

But the switch from skepticism to Scripture could be a tough transition for Democrats who are known as the secular party, the party of separation of church and state.

“The Democrats can’t be more pious than Bush, but they can compete for the more moderate or liberal religious people,” said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.

Mr. Bush’s Democratic foes must strike a balance between being preachy and pandering. After Mr. Dean’s Dec. 25 revelation in the Boston Globe that he follows a Christ “who sought out people who were disenfranchised; people who were left behind,” some wondered why the candidate had not mentioned the Almighty before.

“He prays every day, is a committed believer in Jesus Christ and plans to include his relationship with his Savior in his hitherto godless campaign speeches,” wrote New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets on Dec. 28. “This will probably come as a surprise to Jesus. It will not, however, shock Southerners long accustomed to the Northern belief that they will swallow anything.”

“When [Mr. Dean] first talked about his faith, he talked about it in strategic terms,” Mr. Green said. “When he said he was going to talk about Jesus, he said it was because of Southern votes. It sounded insincere.”

Four years ago, Texas Gov. George W. Bush also brandished the name of Christ, with better results.

“He was stumbling a bit,” Mr. Green said. “He said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. People were amazed, but it worked for him. It helped him out-compete [fellow candidates] Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes.”

Some candidates believe they must beat the president at his own game.

“We cannot concede values to this president,” Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, told Fox News on Dec. 28.

After all, they reason, Al Gore got more votes than the president, and he hardly used the faith card.

But since September 11, the world — and the president’s rhetoric — have been described more in terms of black and white than in terms of good and evil.

Democrats make the mistake of promising their personal faith won’t affect their politics, wrote Sojourners editor Jim Wallis in the magazine’s February issue.

“But what kind of faith is that?” he asked. “Where would we be if Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?”

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, says grass-roots America is increasingly opposing abortion, a no-compromise issue for many religious citizens. A December John Zogby poll states that 43 percent of Democrats oppose abortion.

But the remaining six Democratic candidates are all pro-choice.

“The whole [Democratic National Committee] is not listening,” Mrs. Day said. “If the Democratic Party wants to be a majority again, they will have to talk about this issue. In their quest to find religion, we hope they think about this.”

Looming on the horizon, she added, is a threat by Catholic bishops to deny the sacraments to politicians who favor abortion.

“It will be hard for Senator Kerry to come out and talk about spirituality or religion if he’s not welcome in certain parishes to take Communion,” Mrs. Day said.

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