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With James Dobson and major conservative evangelical leaders threatening to bolt the Republican Party if Rudy Giuliani is nominated for president, conventional wisdom about God and politics has been turned on its head. For the last 25 years, conservative evangelicals could reliably count on the Republicans to choose a candidate acceptable to their version of Christian politics. This year, however, the leading Republican candidates seem unable to articulate any convincing religious message, much less a strongly biblical perspective on issues. All the while, the three leading Democratic candidates can testify to personal faith, possess robust theological views, and ground many policies in broadly biblical principles.
In recent weeks, Rudy Giuliani has awkwardly quoted scripture (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”) to defend his personal record with adultery, multiple divorces, and family dissension. John McCain, an Episcopalian, said he was really a member of a Baptist church in Phoenix for the last 20 years—only to later confess that he had not been baptized in that tradition, thus excluding him from membership in the congregation. Fred Thompson rarely attends church. And, of course, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, appears to be serious and faithful about his religion—a religion long categorized as a “cult” by many evangelicals. While Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee hold pristine evangelical credentials, neither appears able to move into the top tier of Republican candidates. Republicans are all over the theological map, with no clear direction.
Meanwhile, over in the Democratic camp, Hillary Clinton appears increasingly comfortable speaking of her faith, prayer life, and the Christian bases of policies such as health care, poverty, and the environment. A new book, God and Hillary Clinton: A Spiritual Life, written by Paul Kengor (although his conservative bias colors the analysis, he attempts to be fair) depicts Senator Clinton as a classical Methodist who takes the social vision of John Wesley seriously, and as a baby-boomer seeker whose life can be seen as a search for a meaning, wisdom, and social transformation. In 2005, Matt Bai of Time magazine suggested that Mrs. Clinton could lead an ethical revolution toward a “new Democratic moralism.”
Senator Clinton is not alone among Democratic candidates. Barack Obama is an adult convert to the Christian faith with a sophisticated grasp of neo-orthodox theology and a commitment to African-American Christianity. John Edwards consistently bases his primary issues—poverty and peacemaking—in the biblical values from his Baptist faith. All three appear to be renewing the Christian tradition of the Social Gospel, developing new ways of interweaving vital faith with the need for political change. They are reminding a new generation of American voters that, in the words of theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, “God is the substance of all revolutions.”
In this election, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are more conversant with scripture, Christian theology, and biblical ethics than the Republican candidates. (I, for one, would like to see a Bible drill between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Giuliani!) The Democratic candidates’ interpretation of faith points them toward different policies than the conservative evangelical politicians of decades past, but theirs are Christian perspectives and passions nonetheless.
Of course, evangelicals like James Dobson will never support Clinton, Obama, or Edwards no matter how richly theological their vision. But while religion should never be a test for political office, people of any faith should cheer that the Democratic Party now appears to understand that American pluralism and politics benefit from open, theologically serious, and spiritually grounded leadership. And we all benefit when more than one party contributes to the conversation between faith and public life.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One) just issued in paperback this week.