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GOD AND COUNTRY - 1.27.04
In Focus  :  The Politics of God
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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.


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God in America Religion and the Law The Politics of God

The George W. Bush administration has embraced religious phraseology and a profoundly religion-driven approach to policy, to the delight of his conservative Christian political base and the dismay of his opponents. From faith-based initiatives to the axis of evil, George W. Bush is arguably the most openly religious president in recent history.

History
Although the frequency and intensity of Bush's religious statements are unusual for an American president, our nation's leaders have made public expressions of faith and injected religion into their politics since the founding of our nation. The Declaration of Independence contains four references to God, including the statement that "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." George Washington noted in his Farewell Address that "both reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." More recently, Jimmy Carter campaigned as a born-again Christian, and presidents have ended speeches with "God bless you and God bless America" for decades.


God and Politics Debate
How big a role should religion play in government and politics? Gwen Ifill discussed the issue with John Podesta, former Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton and now head of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, and Bay Buchanan, who ran all three of her brother Pat's presidential campaigns and now consults on conservative issues.

Gwen Ifill
Bay Buchanan, it is an election year, which means the culture wars have to begin. So, tell us about the culture wars in terms of what we're talking about, rel- -- tonight, religion. How big a deal is it gonna be this year?

Bay Buchanan
Well - well, first of all, Gwen, the culture war has continued; it never stopped. We're always fighting that, I'm afraid, and we haven't been as successful as I'd like to believe. But how it plays [as] an issue in the presidential campaign this year in a different sort of way. You have a war out there right now, and you have the economy that's just coming back, if you like. Those two are primary issues. There's just no question about that. But where I think religion will come into play is that more and more Americans are feeling quite comfortable with their religion and talking about it again. And they are comfortable with the President of the United States, because he speaks of his own and his faith. And it makes him a very endearing person when he speaks. It makes him vulnerable. And I believe that people are gravitated to him; they identify with him, and they want him to succeed. And so when they look at the issue of the war, they might be concerned about it, but they say, "We want him to succeed," and they'll support him. And, as well in the economy. I think he gains a lot of support from people in both parties because of who he is, which is key, and religion's key to that.

Gwen Ifill
Is there a flip side to that, John?

John Podesta
Well, I think, for almost the past 25 years, at least, the conservative Christian voice has tried to say that it's the only religious voice in American politics. And, of course, that's not true. There are people across the spectrum. Most Americans view themselves as religious and practice religion, and I think there's a very wide range of views of what constitutes, a moral commitment to politics in America. And I think when you saw it with the rise of, for example, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority - when you see that religious voice become - to try to use it as a wedge issue, to try to come into politics and exclude people from their kind of moral perspective in religious politics, I think there could be a down side politically for the President.

Gwen Ifill
But you say the conservative voice is not necessarily the only religious voice, yet there are polls that show that the vast majority - or at least a substantial majority - of people who are churchgoers support Republicans like George W. Bush. And most of the people who oppose George W. Bush are casual, at best, churchgoers.

John Podesta
Well, I'm not sure that the statistics bear it out, or the polling bears it out. I think that there's a segment of Evangelical Christians who clearly dominantly support the President probably by numbers of 2 to 1; but there are many, many churchgoers - practicing Protestants, practicing Catholics in this country, Jews and other denominations - for whom those numbers just don't apply. The country's still fairly evenly divided. The President's numbers are clearly competitive with the Democratic candidate for President. And so I think we're just gonna have to see how this plays out.

Bay Buchanan
You know, I think I agree with John. There's no question there's people who - who believe they're quite religious -- and, indeed there's no reason to believe that they're not religious - who are Democrats, or independents. It doesn't mean that the conservative - that all religious people are Republicans, by any manner or means. But I think what has happened in the last ten years or so is ten years ago, we had a - a Newt Gingrich. And everybody said, "Well, you know, that's what the conservatives, social conservatives, are. And they put this mean-spirited kind of look at what a social conservative was. But now you have as a person who's now the leader of the social conservatives -- is George Bush, a most affable, likeable person. And people who -- there's a warmth there and a connection with the American people. And I think where the Democrats are gonna be in real bad stead is that they are gonna put up against him an angry person in - in a Dean - if, indeed, Dean is to win this. And, and you can tell this, Gwen, because Democrats are losing people who were their own base - Catholics - working Catholics. There was Gore - just barely won Catholics. That's an area ten, 20 years ago they won big. You can't lose Catholics as Democrats and expect to win nationally. Likewise, look at Democrats. National Democrats can't go South to help their own candidates. You have the nominees of - or, the people running to be the nominee of the Democratic party uncomfortable running in their southern primaries - their Democratic, southern primaries - because they don't know how to talk the issues - the social, conservative issues.

Gwen Ifill
Well, let's talk about the issues which are the underpinning of this political debate, because they're very pointed, and we're talking about them on this program tonight: gay marriage, for instance. Do Republicans have the right view of tolerance when it comes to gay marriage?

Bay Buchanan
Oh, this is a perfect question. This idea of "tolerance" was raised by - very successfully by - by Democrats, by liberals ten, 15 years ago, as they said that Republicans, or conservatives, were not "tolerant" of many different issues, as the culture started to change. But, what's happened is the Democrats have assumed the feminist and the homosexual agenda as their - they've changed over 20 years ago. I guess 50 years ago, we all agreed. We're all social conservatives in the country. But as things changed, they took upon themselves the more liberal point of view. Conservatives are still Republicans. Or, Republicans still believe in the social conservative issues. And so now you say on issues, uh, of gay marriage - they've taken too far, Gwen. You know, initially, it was -- the liberals, if you like; and it's the - the left wing, or the so-called "left-wing" of the Democratic party.

John Podesta
Well, virtually all the Democratic nominees for President actually reject that position. But I think that you're on to something, which is that the country is becoming increasingly tolerant. They're looking for that. They're for a candidate that will appeal to opportunity for every American, for tolerance for all Americans. And, frankly, that's a moral position. That's a position that comes from a deep, moral underpinning, and a religious underpinning. And... perhaps, Bay and I would agree on this, is that Democrats have to do a better job of reaching in and projecting that moral positioning of those issues to the American people and say, as most of the candidates are now trying to do and say, "What makes me tick?" "What's my -- What's my moral core that says that I want to move this country in a more progressive direction, in a direction that's going to open up more opportunity for more Americans?" "And that, quite frankly, respects the views and the practices of more Americans?"

Gwen Ifill
A lot of these issues have to do with government's role. For instance, let's go on to another one: government's role in the classroom, whether you're talking about vouchers or school prayer. How do Republicans use that -- are they in tune with where Americans are? And, are Democrats in tune or out of step?

Bay Buchanan
Clearly, the American people, they recognized and saw that they took God out of the classroom. And that's offended the social conservatives. They believe that it's a legitimate right there. But the people accept that, and you move to the next step. And I think what's happened is liberals have gone too far. And then they're going after, now, the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom. Well, that's just ridiculous. They say it's unconstitutional. They've gone to gay marriage, and they -- really, there's an assault, we believe, on marriage itself. And so, whereas before, they said we should "tolerate" other people and people who have different backgrounds or different beliefs, now they're saying you can't -- we feel under assault, as a conservative... as somebody's who's conservative on social issues. We're under assault. You want to take God out of the classrooms. You want to tell us we can't do the Pledge of Allegiance. You want to tell us that marriage should be accepted for everyone, and you say that gay unions should be recognized as equal to heterosexual unions. This is too extreme. And that's where the Democrats are mistaken. Before, they were able to make Republicans and New Gingrich types appear to be intolerant. Now, it appears that the Democrats are the extreme. They've gone too far. And they're no longer tolerant.

Gwen Ifill
Well, let me ask this Democrat here. She says the Democrats have gone too far.

John Podesta
They're assuming -- I don't think that any Democratic candidate has stood up and said, "We gotta take the Pledge of Allegiance out of the classroom." And I think that you'll see them all line up, and no Democrat will be out-pledged by the Republicans.

Gwen Ifill
What are Democrats saying?

John Podesta
I think they're saying that there are a lot of important issues that this country faces, from a healthcare crisis, to a jobs crisis, to how we deal with creating opportunity for every American, that are important issues that come from a core set of moral beliefs about how to project and create and strengthen community in this country. And they've got to be able to project those issues in a way that people relate to. And I think that what - what I think conservatives want to do - it's an old canard - is the wedge issue, is to say that Democrats are running out the Pledge of Allegiance. That's not true.

Gwen Ifill
But it sounds like you're redefining the Democratic agenda about healthcare and education and other issues as moral issues. Are they?

John Podesta
They are deeply moral issues. And, quite frankly, you know, the stewardship of the environment is a moral issue; and it comes and stems from people's deep, moral beliefs.

Gwen Ifill
And God's role in that is?

John Podesta
And God's role in that is that we - you know, God teaches us to be good stewards of the earth. And when we turn around and despoil the earth and give in to the polluters -- that's an issue that can be debated on moral terms - as much as the issues that they want to throw out and talk about. And I think what we've had over the course of the years - look, John Kennedy got it right in 1960, when he went before the American people and said that his background, his social upbringing, his moral beliefs as a Catholic informed the way he wanted to approach the presidency; but they shouldn't be a litmus test on government policy. And I think that that's what all candidates need to do.

Bay Buchanan
What the problem here is -- and John is explaining exactly what happened for Clinton. And you've just commented on it. They saw that family values was something good. People like family values. And so next, you know, Bill Clinton defines family values as school uniforms and curfews for young people, and everybody said, "Okay, that's conservative." And it really wasn't what family values - not what we really believed. The problem now is that, with the two parties, there's little distinction on foreign policy. Both Democrats and Republicans, many of them will support the war. They support the different foreign policies. They come together on those. On the economy, both want to cut taxes, one maybe a different place and maybe a little more than the other, but the only distinction is social issues.

Gwen Ifill
But the lines seem to be drawn so much - well, it keeps shifting, that line. But it seems to be so much more distinct when it comes to cultural, social, religious issues.

Bay Buchanan
Because these other issues were the key issues, and -- one side was big government, and the other's smaller government. Now both believe in spending. One side was cut taxes; the other side was not cut taxes. Now, both are for cutting taxes. Trade, they're in total agreement on. And so there is no distinction, except, now, on social issues. And where they're -- used to not be on social issues, as I said before, over the last 25 years, the feminist and the homosexual agenda have really been embraced by the Democrats on all - except with the one exception of gay marriage. That hasn't, but that's just the next step. And so that's your distinctive point.

Gwen Ifill
John?

John Podesta
Well, I think that, you know, what Democrats have done has been to try to put forward an agenda in social policy terms. And I think that what you see in this campaign is them trying to reach back into the roots that have been formed. And if you think back to the role of religion in moving progressive values forward in this country, whether it was the Civil Rights Movement -- Reverend Martin Luther King or, before that, the movement to try to create laws against child labor, et cetera. There's always been a religious voice - a progressive religious voice - in moving the country forward. And I think you're gonna see that again in Democratic politics as we move forward.

Gwen Ifill
But what they will be going up against this time is a President who is very vocal about his own religion. When he was asked in that debate about who was the philosopher he most would like to emulate, he said, "Jesus Christ."

John Podesta
Right.

Gwen Ifill
How do Democrats answer that question? Because that was very appealing to a certain segment of the populace.

John Podesta
Well, look. I respect that. I just wish that he had spent a little bit more time listening to the Sermon on the Mount and the part where where Jesus kicked the money changers out of the temple than I see embodied in the policies that he's pursuing. But I do respect his personal religious values. But, yet, I respected...

Bay Buchanan
But...

John Podesta
I think if you're gonna respect it in President Bush, you have to respect it across the board. Many of the candidates who are coming forward have deep, personal beliefs. They have moral beliefs. They have a moral structure that comes from their religious upbringing. And I think that the country is wise to respect all those voices in the...

Gwen Ifill
There's no question. But, Bay, let me just ask you this. Is there a down side to the President's outward, very vocal professions of faith? Is he turning off some - certain segments of the populace?

Bay Buchanan
Well, no. Absolutely not. There's no down side whatsoever. These are his beliefs, his values; and he's quite proud of them, and he should be. That's the American way, is to be able to express what your beliefs are. And if there is a downturn, then let there be one. But there is not -- in this case, especially - because, I think, more and more people identify. I seriously believe that many, many - well, right now the President's looking at 30 percent Democratic support. And I believe it's this support - there's a lot of Southern people that feel very strong about their culture and their beliefs, and they feel that they've been put on the defensive over the years by liberals, by many Democrats, and by the media. And, all of a sudden, somebody speaks up and says, "I'm Christian, and I'm proud of it," and I think they relate to that and are very comfortable with him. And, John, I think, John, your problem is your own candidates are uncomfortable talking about God in public, against a man that's very comfortable about it.

Gwen Ifill
Let me ask you a final question... I want you to put back on your campaign advisor hats that you're not pointedly putting on this year. And if you were advising candidates for President, and you had to tell them what is it that Americans are listening for on these issues - you say that the cultural wars are the only wars that are left, that wars over religion are what's turning people against or for this president. What would you tell them about how to speak to these issues in a way that Americans are listening for?

John Podesta
Look, I think what people really want, in reality, is when the door of the Oval Office closes and you're in there by yourself, what makes you tick? What's your moral core? What are the issues you really care about? Where do you want to take this country? And they've got to find a way to personally express that in a way that's not phony, that's not fake, that is true to who they are as human beings. And I think that ultimately, the President has found a way to do that, that, I think is, in fact, genuine. But I think that the Democratic candidates will do that in their own way.

Gwen Ifill
Do they have baggage that they have to face, leftover from President Clinton?

John Podesta
Well, I think that - you know, I don't think anybody confuses the candidates who are currently running with President Clinton and any baggage that's a holdover from that period of time. I think they embrace what he did for the country, and I think that with regard to the questions of his personal conduct, I think that nobody ascribes those to the candidates who are currently running. But I think that when it crosses the line is when you impose litmus tests on public issues and on public policy, or on candidates for public office. That's where President Kennedy drew the line, and it was the right line to draw.

Gwen Ifill
Do you get Republicans not to seem as if they're imposing the litmus test he's talking about?

Bay Buchanan
Oh, my God. The only litmus test that I've seen any time in the last ten years is a litmus test the Democrats are applying to the judges the President puts up there. They have to be pro-choice. Otherwise, they will not confirm them. That's the litmus [test]. We never applied that litmus test.

Gwen Ifill
That's not...

Bay Buchanan
Uh, well, there is - that is religious. There's many religious people that are pro-life because of their religion, and it's a value that they hold very dear. I think what the key here is that the President, or whoever aspires to be President, should be comfortable with their beliefs and comfortable expressing those. And I think what the American people want is honesty and a sense that the person has some guidance and recognizes themselves as being in need of help from a higher calling here at some stage; that they're there to do a job, and in times they need to get advice and counsel from a higher being, that they do that. And I think that that's a very endearing and attractive characteristic of this president and former presidents.

Gwen Ifill
It sounds like on that you two agree.

John Podesta
We do.

Gwen Ifill
Okay. Well, in that case, we'll leave it there. Bay Buchanan and John Podesta, thank you very much for being with us.



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