Vanderbilt's divinity school was a liberal enclave tucked into a staunchly conservative campus, controlled by a powerful board that included some of the city's most reactionary political figures, including Nashville Banner publisher James Stahlman. It flashed to prominence in 1960 when James Lawson, a divinity student and the Nashville organizer for Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was expelled for leading sit-ins to integrate the city's restaurants. Lawson's removal, which was supported by Vanderbilt's student newspaper, triggered a massive faculty protest that eventually forced his reinstatement
Like many young men, Gore was drawn to religious study not as a path to the ministry but as a means of answering ethical and existential questions. "The Vietnam experience left him wondering about a lot of things. It left him wondering about what counted in life," said Jack Forstman, then chairman of the graduate department of religion, who called students like Gore "searchers." Like his classmates and teachers at Harvard, the Vanderbilt faculty saw a young man struggling to sharpen his sense of himself. "Al Gore had always been a role," said Eugene TeSelle, who taught a course in theology and natural science that Gore took. "The question was: Who was he? And what did he want to do?"
Gore's early religious life reflected the dual influences of his family's roots in Washington and Tennessee: the cool Episcopalian of St. Albans and the rigorous, individual soul-searching and Bible-based Sunday school lessons of his summers at New Salem Missionary Baptist. The Southern Baptist Convention was still under the sway of moderates and liberals during his "searcher" period in the early 1970s, and the denomination, with its history of support for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, was in tune with Gore's inner voice. The convention's politics then were "very Clinton-Gore," said Nancy Ammerman, professor at the Hartford Seminary and author of "Baptist Battles."
While he claimed to have washed his hands of a political future, there was little doubt among the faculty that he was preparing himself to lead. "I assumed where he ought to go was public life," said Yale divinity school professor Tom Ogletree, who taught at Vanderbilt when Gore attended. Although he didn't formally enroll in the class, he frequently attended Dean Walter Harrelson's lectures on the Old Testament prophets Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, who raged against Israel's corrupt ruling class--the brutal kings, venal judges, moneyed capitalists, and avaricious priests. The prophets' message, to "let justice flow like water, and integrity like an unfailing stream" (Amos 5:24), was that to love God was to make an unwavering commitment to fairness and equality. "What he got from Amos was an understanding of the demands of God to see to the needs of the people," said Harrelson, "and to avoid taking advantage." In TeSelle's class Gore was exposed to dire predictions about the future of the global environment, themes that would become the core of "Earth in the Balance." His reading included "The Limits to Growth" by the Club of Rome, an examination of threats posed by uncontrolled industrialization and population growth.
Gore also pursued more esoteric areas of study, including mysticism as a psycho-religious phenomenon and supernatural influence in primitive religions. His teachers say that while Gore never intended to get a degree or to enter the ministry, he didn't come across as a dabbler. "I remember him as a serious student with enormous spontaneous intellectual interest," said Edward Farley, Gore's professor in a Ph.D.-level course on embodiment--philosophical problems in the dualism of mind and body. Gore's interests apparently didn't include satisfying his course requirements. Of the eight classes he took over three semesters, according to his Vanderbilt transcript, five ended in Fs or incompletes that lapsed into Fs, including his grade in Farley's class. But Harrelson said that didn't matter. "He came to get from those courses what he wanted. The question of credentials was not important. He learned what he felt he needed to know."
When he returned to Washington to join the House, he and Tipper began attending Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington, where they were "born again" in the late 1970s. He was also, at least through his first vice presidential term, part of a small weekly prayer group, and friends say that religious faith is a cornerstone of his life. "I believe in serving God and trying to understand and obey God's will for our lives," Gore told Harvard seniors in his 1994 commencement speech. "Cynics may wave the idea away, saying God is a myth, useful in providing comfort to the ignorant and in keeping them obedient. I know in my heart--beyond all arguing and beyond any doubt--the cynics are wrong." The Baptist influence still echoes in some of his public speaking, which takes on an uncharacteristic energy in black churches. His two convention speeches about family tragedies, the death of his sister and the near-death of his son, while they served strategic political purposes, also had the flavor of Baptist testimony about suffering and redemption. "In my tradition, we believe the world has been transformed by the willingness of Jesus Christ to suffer on the cross," he said from the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Day in 1998. "Suffering binds us together and enables us to see what we have in common and what we are called upon to do."
But Gore found himself outside the institutional Baptist mainstream as the convention shifted to the right in the 1980s and 1990s. His support for abortion and gay rights earned him an F as a vice presidential candidate in 1992 from the Southern Baptists' Christian Life Commission. Nor is the Southern Baptist Convention especially active in the movement close to Gore's heart--mobilizing the spiritual community in defense of the environment.
Although he remains under the Southern Baptist umbrella, he emphasizes those aspects of Baptist doctrine that are more in sync with his other personal beliefs, forming a view that seems to be an amalgam of Baptist tradition, New Age spiritualism, and a "call" to save the environment. "I have come to believe in the value of a kind of inner ecology that relies on the same principles of balance and holism that characterize a healthy environment," he wrote in the final pages of "Earth in the Balance."
After listening to Gore answer questions from religion writers at a White House meeting in the spring of 1999, New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels wrote, "What one sensed...was a Christianity that is ethical and intellectual but not especially doctrinal." Most of his references were to the general virtues of compassion and kindness and to thinkers whose writings often focused on spirituality in an age of science and politics: political moralist Reinhold Niebuhr, Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Others who know Gore wonder whether a mind with such a technical and scientific bent could ever make a truly surrendering decision to believe. "I think he is someone who would like to have an irrevocable faith, but he's found it very hard," said Eve Zibart, a friend from the Nashville days who worked as a reporter at The Tennessean. "It appeals to him that there is a place where one's failings are forgiven."