Beliefnet
"Meet the Press" host Tim Russert routinely uses his merciless journalistic skills to pick apart the policy statements of the Democratic presidential candidates. Last week, after Howard Dean announced he was going to start talking more about religion on the campaign trail, Russert made the former Vermont governor's faith journey a character issue. "If he was baptized a Catholic," Russert intoned, "then became an Episcopalian, left that church because of a feud over a bike path . . . and is now Congregationalist, is he going to be seen as someone who is trying . . . to publicly embrace Christ to be seen as more religious than he really is?"

This line of thinking makes me nervous. Sure, we should scrutinize the candidates' comments on faith. After all, we assess the consistency of their pronouncements on trade policy or Medicare, so why not religion? But as journalists and commentators parse the candidates' religious statements, they're doing so in ways that can only remind those running why they used to keep quiet about such matters.

As editor of a religion Web site, I viewed it as a positive development when the candidates started talking about their spiritual lives. We can learn a lot about them by listening to them discuss their faith: where they draw their strength from, whether they are fatalistic or believe people can control world events, how they make sense of injustice in the world, and what they value most.

But the punditry so far has been ignorant of how Americans develop their style of religious observance, and I fear it could chill honest discussion of religion. The implication of Russert's question, for instance, is that Dean's shifting among religions indicated a lack of conviction, as if only consistency equals piety. A similar point was made about Wesley Clark after he said, in an interview with Beliefnet, "I'm spiritual. I'm religious. I'm a strong Christian and I'm a Catholic but I go to a Presbyterian Church." Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, complained, "Gen. Clark, still hot in pursuit of the Democratic nomination for President, finally clarifies his real religious convictions -- namely, he doesn't seem to have any."

To some extent this reflects a common tic of many political reporters when facing many subjects. Uncomfortable with making value judgments about the wisdom of someone's policy, they gravitate toward the measurable -- signs of inconsistency or hypocrisy. So it's no surprise that the same standard is now being applied to faith. Going from Catholicism to Episcopalianism is, in the lexicon of political reporting, a flip-flop.

But if Dean and Clark are therefore spiritually promiscuous, they have excellent company. Twenty to 30 percent of Americans now practice a faith different from the one in which they were raised, according to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow. And a much higher percentage have switched houses of worship.

For 20 years now, sociologists have documented how Americans have become "consumers" of spirituality. Changing faiths or churches could mean someone is flighty, but more often it means that they take their spiritual journey seriously enough to reassess it constantly. This is what baby boomers do. They shop. And serious shoppers are often quite intense. Someone who carefully weighs the differences between Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee and Seattle's Best may be obsessive, but you can't say he doesn't appreciate a good cup of joe.

Another misconception that has crept into the media analysis of the candidates' religious statements is the idea that Americans approach religion with the mindset of theologians. Thus, Dean and Clark have been maligned not only because they shifted a lot but because they seemed to do so for superficial reasons. Dean, it's often been noted, switched churches because of a dispute over building a bike path. Clark left the Catholic Church in anger over the anti-military rhetoric of a priest. Such trivial matters!

But again, this isn't unusual behavior. Americans often choose houses of worship -- and denominations -- based on a combination of the doctrinal, the practical and the emotional. Which church has the best choir? Which is closest to home? Whose preacher is the least boring? Where do my friends go? How does the service make me feel? "It's quite typical," says Wade Clark Roof, a University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist and author of "Spiritual Marketplace." "People want to feel good about their institutional religious connections. If they don't, they switch or simply drop out." So becoming annoyed that a church isn't community-minded enough, or is insufficiently respectful of you and your peers, seems fairly reasonable.

Similarly, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas mocked Dean for raising his children in the Jewish faith: "Dean's wife is Jewish and his two children are being raised Jewish, which is strange at best, considering the two faiths take a distinctly different view of Jesus." But millions of Americans have figured out how to raise kids in interfaith marriages, and the number is huge if you consider interdenominational marriages, which still involve ignoring serious theological lines. More than 60 percent of married people have spouses of another denomination or religion, according to the General Social Survey, a long-term study of attitudes conducted by the University of Michigan.

While raising children in such families certainly has challenges, it does not cause nearly the cognitive dissonance Thomas suspects. I'm Jewish. My wife is Presbyterian. Our kids go to Hebrew school and say the Lord's Prayer at night. My wife delights in telling our kids the story of how a poor baby born in a manger grew to spiritual greatness. Yes, Judaism and Christianity take a different view on the divinity of Jesus, which we acknowledge to our kids. But Thomas would be surprised to see how pious the children of interfaith families can be if you focus on the right values and the common ground in the two belief systems.

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