God's Politics

Last Monday, John Kerry did something many of us wish he’d done two years ago. He showed up at Pepperdine University—if not exactly the lion’s den, then at least a lair of sometimes snarling cats—and gave a long, open talk about his faith. (You can read the text of his speech here and watch the speech, as well as some Q&A here.)

It seems that Kerry caught this conservative Church of Christ campus off-guard. After hearing about his faith journey from cradle Catholic to spiritually wounded and questioning soldier to mature Christian, the standing-room-only crowd gave a standing ovation that I doubt the former Democratic presidential candidate expected.

The fact that Kerry even accepted Pepperdine’s invitation shows that some Democrats are starting to realize that speaking to even conservative Christian audiences is a no-lose proposition. If they don’t like you when you show up, and you bomb, then you haven’t lost any support. But if after listening to you, some people decide, wow, I really had that John Kerry wrong,

Perhaps more importantly, what Kerry has learned—and told the crowd—is that it’s all well and good for a Democrat to decide that his faith is private and he’d rather not talk about it in public, thank you very much. But that doesn’t mean that his faith remains private. It just guarantees that his faith—or purported lack thereof—gets defined by the opposition.

As long as 70 percent of Americans continue to say they want their president to be a man of faith, religion will be an issue in political campaigns. Better for Democrats to be proactive and define themselves for Americans before Republicans start the inevitable painting of them as godless secularists. Barack Obama told a similar story in June when he talked about his insufficient response to Alan Keyes’ charge that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” And this week, Cong. James Clyburn, a minister from South Carolina, made much the same point when he talked about losing a county in his district for the first time after his opponent called him the “most un-Christian person I’ve ever met.”

Democrats tend to ignore charges like these because they’re absurd (and they are), but they have an impact if Democrats don’t then affirmatively explain who they are. That could mean anything from talking about the philosophical principles they use to ground their political positions or the religious beliefs that anchor their policy priorities. Kerry took the latter approach when he told the Pepperdine crowd that his Catholicism has influenced his positions in four areas: poverty, environmental stewardship, abortion, and an adherence to just war principles.

Read the whole thing (better yet, watch it to get a sense of how newly comfortable Kerry is with Biblical exegesis and discussions of his own struggles to understand a God who allows bad things to happen to some people) and come to your own conclusions. My guess is that many people will be surprised, and perhaps impressed, by what they see and hear. Whether you agree with Kerry or not, it’s nice to see him and Obama (and Bob Casey at Catholic University last week) presenting different ways to talk about faith and politics.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly and author of a forthcoming book on religion and the left (Scribner, Fall 2007).

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