|RELIGION AND POLITICS|
December 24 , 1999
TERENCE SMITH: In 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy did all he could to make his Roman Catholic faith a nonissue in the presidential campaign.
SENATOR JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair -- neither imposed upon him by the nation nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office. I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.
TERENCE SMITH: Four decades later, the contrast is unmistakable. In the last Republican debate in Iowa, three GOP hopefuls invoked the vocabulary of evangelical Protestantism when asked which philosopher or thinker with whom they most identified.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Christ. Because He changed my heart. When you turn your heart and you're life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as a savior it changes your heart, it changes your life. And that's what happened to me.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I bear witness to Christ, too. I really know Him to be the savior of the world.
GARY BAUER: "I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Christ with those words taught all of us about our obligations to each other.
TERENCE SMITH: Candidate John McCain is running a radio ad with religious overtones. It's narrated by a fellow former prisoner of war in Vietnam.
SPOKESMAN: Christmas service of 1971 was centered around some scripture that John had gotten from first bible he's been able to get from the Vietnamese. John composed an extremely compelling sermon that night about the importance ever Christmas.
TERENCE SMITH: Another Republican, Alan Keyes, speaks of putting faith in prayer back into the classroom. He appeared recently on the NewsHour.
ALAN KEYES: We have lost our moral way. We have forgotten the principle that our rights come from God and must be exercised with respect for existence and authority of God.
TERENCE SMITH: On the Democratic side, Vice President Gore recently discussed his faith describing himself as a born-again Christian.
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: I affirm my faith when I am asked about it. But I try do to do so in a way that communicates absolute respect not only for people who worship in a different way but just as much respect for those who do not believe in God -- who are atheists.
TERENCE SMITH: As a young man in his 20s, Bill Bradley spoke publicly of his Christian conversion and once joined evangelist Billy Graham on a missionary trip to London. Today, however, he distinguishes himself from virtually the entire presidential field by keeping his religious views to himself.
BILLY GRAHAM: I've decided that that personal faith is private and I will not discuss it with the public.
TERENCE SMITH: Front runners Bush and Gore also meld religion and politics by endorsing the role of faith-based organizations as conduits for government assistance to the poor. And as a matter of practical politics, the evangelical vote to expected to be important in key battleground states, like Iowa and South Carolina.
TERENCE SMITH: More on religion and politics now from our regional commentators. Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution, Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune, and Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News. Joining them is Jane Eisner of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Welcome to you all. Cynthia Tucker, how comfortable are you with this overt discussion of religion in the presidential campaign?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: I'm uncomfortable with it, Terry. And let me be clear, I would never suggest that religious faith have no role in public life. But let's remember the context here. This is a presidential campaign. And I'm always a little skeptical about what candidates say in the course of a political campaign. What we see here is most of the major candidates with the exception of Bill Bradley, going out of their way to very publicly profess their commitment to Christianity when they know that the majority of the voters in this country, if they affiliate themselves with any religion at all, the vast majority of voters affiliate themselves with Christianity. So all they're doing is pandering here and they're not taking any risk. It's not as if there is a Jewish candidate professing his belief in Judaism or a Muslim candidate professing his faith in Islam. Again, these are all candidates professing their faith in what is the major religion in this country. And it seems to me that this is an issue that should concern sincere Christians.
TERENCE SMITH: Pat McGuigan, is it pandering or appropriate commentary?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I think a degree of skepticism is probably healthy. But certainly wouldn't want to border into being cynical about these public professions of faith. In fact I think voters are interested in this kind of thing; a person's faith, the way they deal with their spiritual life, with their friends, neighbors can family, is a vital aspect of their character. It shows their philosophy of life. It shows a recognition -- for that matter -- of the limits of politics, or a philosophy in terms of guiding us. Faith is a vital component of human existence. Our rights, millions of us believe, our rights are natural. They are given to us by God not by the state. And so a recognition of a higher power of God and in this country in particular, a recognition of the Christian tradition is, I think, a healthy thing. And that doesn't preclude others that don't share that tradition from participating in the process. I think people are interested in knowing more about candidates for President and there's a particular hunger for moral leadership right now, and I'm watching like everybody else not cynically but a bit skeptically of the protestation or the professions of faith by the various candidates.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Jane Eisner, where do you come down on this?
JANE EISNER: Well, I also, of course, as a journalist share some skepticism. But I think it's important for voters to be able to make full judgments about values and the perceptions that the candidates have and that they would bring in this case to the White House. You know, I wasn't comfortable listening to the comments of George Bush and Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch. But, you know what -- that was important information for me to have, because if I was uncomfortable listening to them, then perhaps it make me question what their motivations are. So, I'm not sorry they said that, in fact, I'm glad because it gave me as a voter some information in terms of how I can eventually evaluate them.
TERENCE SMITH: Why were you uncomfortable?
JANE EISNER: Well, because for one thing, as I'm not a Christian, and so I wonder how those individuals as President would govern a multi-cultural, multi-religious state. Also I don't quite understand what the idea would be in terms of Jesus as a political figure, and how that would affect someone's way of governing and doing policy.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, what's your view?
ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think Jane has raised a good issue here. But I think the discussion today about religion is very different than it has been in the past. And I'm old enough to remember the 1960 primary when John Kennedy went to West Virginia and became, and was elected in a heavily Protestant state. And what he really was working against was anti-Catholic bigotry - not so much trying to suppress a discussion of religion in our political life. So I think it's very important that these issues be discussed. Yes, I think we have to be skeptical about the motives of politicians in this area, but I think they are reflecting in part a desire in the country for stronger moral values and a recognition that religion plays a big role in our moral fiber, and that somehow religion can contribute to the -- to solving some of the social pathologies that we are afflicted with. So I don't think there's anything to be alarmed about here. I think in general, it flows in line with the history of this nation. After all, the first settlers on these shores were motivated by religion to come here. I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address where he made a very public plea to God, to a just God, to assist in binding up the nation's wounds. I don't think we need to be concerned about candidates who express their personal views or for that matter invoke the name of God from time to time. Yes, we have to understand the context, but in general, I don't think this is anything to be concerned about.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Cullum, how did you feel; how did you react when you heard those quotes?
LEE CULLUM: Well, Terry, I want to begin by saying that I don't want to see religion divorced from our public life. I don't think we would be true to ourselves or the people if we did that. We are one nation under God. But Bob Kittle was talking about the founding fathers, and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute had what I thought a very good piece in the "New York Times" about this, pointing out that the founding fathers did indeed invoke God and foaled religion into their public discourse. But they did it very carefully. Think about the Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. "By their Creator" is a carefully chosen phrase. It embraces the deism of Jefferson himself; it embraces the Methodists down in Georgia, the Baptists up in Rhode Island, the Congregationalists in Massachusetts, the Anglicans in Virginia, the Jewish and Catholic communities in Baltimore. I mean no criticism of any of the candidates in this race -- certainly not George W. Bush who is very well thought of here in Texas as you might imagine. But I do hope they will think carefully when they're speaking to a broad public audience - that they will think about trying to find common ground as possible especially on issue as sensitive as religion. The important purpose of a great leader, I think, is to create community. And that is done by seeking common ground. I think if they're speaking to specific congregations, then, of course, it's appropriate to be more specific in what they have to say about religion.
TERENCE SMITH: Cynthia Tucker, what do you think explains this discussion this year? Why is it coming up so forcefully in this campaign?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I think there are a couple of things going on here. As we heard earlier, evangelical Christians will play a very important role particularly in the GOP primary. I think in George W. Bush's case -- and I'm not saying that his religious values are insincere. What I am saying is, that he is pandering to a certain segment of the voting public by making those professions of faith so publicly. And I think in his case, the appeal is directly to conservative Christians who may not think that he is true enough to their values. In the case of Al Gore, I think it is something very different. Al Gore is doing all he can, I think, to distinguish himself from Bill Clinton who many view as a very immoral President. But think the important thing to remember is, if asked, Bill Clinton also would make a very public profession of his Christian faith, he can quote the Bible with the best of them. He goes to church regularly. So I'm not at all convinced that moral leadership flows from a public profession of Christian faith.
TERENCE SMITH: Pat McGuigan, how much of this is politics? How much of is it genuine discussion of religion?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: I think it is in many ways in the four square tradition of American politics and culture. I think much of what Cynthia just said, not necessarily her first comment, but what she just said, has a lot of merit to it. I do believe that the separation that people have made between personal life or personal behavior and one's political philosophy is a little bit artificial, and that there is an important nexus, there needs to be consistency there. The founding generation of our country certainly in various ways evoked not only the Creator, but very specifically Almighty God. Jefferson referred to the fact that he trembled for the country when he reflected that God is just, that he was fearful of judgment if our society, of our culture didn't live up to its best promises -- in the Great Awakening before the Civil War, in the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, in more modern times the civil rights movement. Right now, in terms of social justice on the more liberal end of the spectrum and in the pro life movement on the conservative end of the spectrum people very much motivated by religious faith are very involved in our politics and they're going to be looking to all these candidates for cues as to how they feel about these important issues.
TERENCE SMITH: Jane Eisner, there is of course another important American political tradition, which is the separation of church and state. Is this in your view an erosion of that?
JANE EISNER: No, I don't think discussion is erosion of that. But I agree with what Lee said. We have to be looking to see that these candidates are very careful in this discussion. It's not just what they say in terms of their own beliefs as important as that information is, but really what they would do if they were elected to office. It's clear that there's a growing awareness that faith-based institutions have a lot to offer to combat social ills, particularly in a city like Philadelphia. But I think we have to craft those kind of partnerships with government and with the private sector in faith-based institutions very carefully to protect the rights of the secular society that we have, and in particular, also to protect the rights of very good, moral Americans who may not profess a particular faith.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, of course, the religious component is there in arguments over school vouchers, over various things. So, it goes beyond just the personal profession of religion or religious views, does it not?
ROBERT KITTLE: No, it certainly does, Terry. And I think part of what we are seeing is a refining of how we interpret the First Amendment and how we structure that wall that divides church from state. And I think over the last 30 years or so we have had a very, very secular approach to all of our problems. And I think now we're looking at whether religion may not have some role in solving our problems such as the problem in our schools. Private schools, whether they are parochial or private, seem to do a better job often in educating our children than public schools. We have to ask as the courts are being asked all the time to settle the issue of whether it is in accordance with the First Amendment, with the separation of church and state for government to pay for students to go to private schools, parochial schools instead of the public institutions. I think we're going to see this Supreme Court redefine that a bit as it's trying also to grapple with the issue, for example, of whether it is proper in accordance with the First Amendment to a allow high school students to offer a prayer before a football game. And I think the pendulum is moving back toward a greater accommodation of religion and faith than we have seen in the last decade or two or three.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Cullum, do you agree with that? Did you think in part the public is asking for this sort of comment from its presidential candidates?
LEE CULLUM: Yes, in a way I do think so, Terry. You know, Pat McGuigan referred to the Great Awakenings. Irving Crystal is the one, I think, who said, we're having a great awakening right now. And it's occurring with a lot of feverish activity and feeling. It's accompanied also by a retreat from science, a retreat from reason. Reason has grown much too cold in the 20th century, a retreat to mysticism. Now, I have to say, these candidates are reflecting this culture. I would add, let's remember, they were asked, kind of a tough question, your favorite philosopher, your favorite thinker, a lot of candidates don't have that on their mind. And that is what the questioner knew. I would have to say that anybody running for office in this country if he or she read "Plato's Republic" every day had better not admit it except in Massachusetts or election would be impossible. We are anti-intellectual in many ways -- so, I think we must accept that these candidates are responding to the culture and are reflective of the culture. And it's a moment that needs to be handled with great delicacy and tact and care.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Thank you all very much. I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you very much and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.