Beliefnet
If elected, General Wesley Clark would be America's first modern Christian "seeker" president. What comes through clearly in his intimate Beliefnet interview is that he has been on a lifelong spiritual search, trying in place after place to find the right match with his personality, values and emotional needs. At various points in his life, he was influenced heavily by Methodists, Baptists, Jews, Catholics and Presbyterians, and his quest seems not to be over.

There are parts of the interview-the first of a series with the candidates--that will no doubt strike readers as idiosyncratic, such as the fact he became alienated first from both Protestantism and then Catholicism as a result of the anti-military comments of individual clergy. Some Catholics may scoff--or be offended by--Clark's statement that he remains a Catholic even though he goes to a Presbyterian church.

But in many ways, Clark is a prototypical modern American Christian. He shops for faith. His decisions are based not only on family considerations, region and theology but spiritual fit--the type of music, quality of the sermons, or the message of the preacher. His faith seems both deep and, at the same time, not fixed to a particular affiliation.

When Clark was almost four, his father Benjamin Kanne, a Chicago alderman and lawyer, died suddenly of a heart attack, prompting the family to move back to Little Rock where his mother had family. Clark's mother, Veneta, was a Methodist but gave the young boy the choice of where to go to church.

Five-year-olds are not likely to choose a church on the basis of its views on salvation or premillennial tribulation theory. "I remember the Methodist church in Chicago had these beautiful stained glass windows," Clark recalls. "I saw a church in Arkansas that had those beautiful stained glass windows and it was right across the street from this barber shop that had a miniature barber's chair complete with the razor strap and everything."

So he chose the church with the pretty windows across from the barber shop with the cool chair. That's how Clark became a Baptist.

Remarkably, week after week the five-year-old went to Emmanuel Baptist church. His religious life, he said, was of "tremendous comfort" in dealing with the death of his father. As he got older, they switched to Pulaski Heights Baptist Church and his connection to his faith grew even deeper. In high school, he would often go to both the morning and evening Sunday services. He was in the Baptist training union and the Royal Ambassadors.

His spiritual path veered after he met Gertrude Kingston, whom he would later marry. She was a Roman Catholic from Brooklyn who was quite insistent on sticking with her church, so Clark would occasionally attend Mass with her.

When he was in England as a Rhodes Scholar, Clark tried worship services offered by two Protestant churches, one Baptist and one Methodist. He hated them, not because of their theology but for their approach to the Vietnam War. "In both cases the sermons were anti-American military and full of wildly overstated claims about how bad the American military was. My West Point roommate was serving over there-he was killed during that period. I wasn't about to go to a church like that who didn't respect my friends who believed they were praying to the same God and serving their country." In an interview with Slate, Clark also said he preferred the structured nature of the Catholic Church.

Around that same time, some relatives visited him and gave him startling news. His father had been Jewish. Clark says he was mostly excited by the news, as it filled out some missing pieces to his family puzzle. But he confronted his mother.

"I don't understand why you didn't tell me."

His mother started to cry. "Wesley," she said. "You just had enough problems. You didn't need one more. You'd lost your father. You came down to Little Rock. You were in fights a lot. You had a Chicago accent. You just didn't need one more problem." She was convinced that self-identifying as a Jew would bring nothing but trouble because "she'd seen the prejudice in Chicago." Once the family secret was out, Clark's mother explained the discrimination she and his father had experienced. "There were restaurants they couldn't go to. There were clubs they couldn't belong to. There were resorts they couldn't go to vacation to. There were friends they didn't really have. This was a prejudiced society."

Kanne's parents had fled Russia, reportedly to avoid pogroms. According to The Jewish Week, Clark told a Brooklyn yeshiva (a religious school for observant Jews) in 1999, "I am the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son - at least five generations, and they were all rabbis." In hindsight, Clark says, he always had an inexplicable affinity for Jews. "It was a funny thing," he says. "It was the way they thought, the way they talked, I just felt a certain familiarity. So when I found my father was Jewish, a lot of pieces just seem to slip into place the right way."

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