As John Kerry took to the pulpit and stump on the next-to-last Sunday of this campaign, he had one overriding goal in mind: to bridge the "God gap" that has bedeviled him and confounded pundits throughout this election. "The fact that Senator Kerry is a person of faith is something that might help voters who are undecided," Kerry adviser Mike McCurry told The Associated Press.

True to his word, Kerry made his most expansive and impassioned remarks about faith, using Scripture to rebuke the policies of President Bush and his fellow Republicans. "Oh no, they didn't choose the least among us, they chose the most powerful among us," Kerry told the congregation at Mount Hernon A.M.E. Church, referring to Jesus' admonition in Matthew 25:40.

On issues ranging from health care to tax cuts, Kerry tied his faith to his social justice agenda, and at the same time tried to match Bush in religious fervor, a contest that has been lopsided so far, with far more voters viewing Bush as a man "of strong religious faith" and with regular churchgoers continuing to favor the incumbent over the challenger by a wide margin. The gulf is critical to Kerry's chances, since voters say by a 3-1 margin that they want a leader of firm religious convictions.

Whether Kerry's last-minute sermonizing will win voters over remains unclear.

What the 2004 campaign has already demonstrated, however, is that the candidates' disparate fortunes in connecting with the public on matters of faith can be tied not so much to their religious convictions-or to political tactics or Brahmin reticence, as many analysts would say-as to their religious denominations: Kerry is a Roman Catholic, and Bush is an evangelical Protestant, and therein lies a profound difference in religious language and imagery that plays a central political role in the persistent "God gap."

This is not a matter of making judgments on the substance of either faith tradition, nor on the sincerity each candidates' personal convictions. Rather, this attests to the vastly differing styles of these two traditions, and to how those styles resonate in the prevailing American religious culture.

Without indulging in complaints about old-time anti-Catholicism, the bottom line is that America has always been a Protestant country, from the colonial era of Pilgrim refugees seeking a "purified" faith, up to the 20th-century when Kerry's political forebear, John F. Kennedy, had to go before an audience of Protestant clergy and essentially disavow any ties to Rome.

In recent decades, that denominational Protestantism has ceded to a kind of free-style evangelical Protestantism that, despite its partisan claims to victimhood, is the regnant religious ethos-and one that is not confined to socially conservative evangelicalism. Today, the streams of revivalism and pietism that have always coursed through American society have washed over into almost every aspect of America's faith life. Like President Bush, Americans across the spectrum now define themselves as "spiritual" and not "religious," and they value a personal, confessional, "therapeutic" form of highly-individualized faith that relies on a one-on-one relationship to Jesus (or whomever) and values the powerful narrative of clamorous conversion (to whatever) over the "empty" rituals of institutional faith.

While many focus on Bush's religious rhetoric as an example of his attempts to mobilize his base among Christian conservatives, the real importance of Bush's God-talk is that his language appeals so far beyond his base.

Surveys show that the number of Americans describing themselves as "born again"-the standard password to evangelical faith-has risen steadily, from 33 percent in the 1980s to as high as 47 percent of all Americans at the turn of the millennium. That means that even though evangelicals constitute a potent bloc of some 60-90 million Americans-surpassing the 65 million Catholics in America-many more millions identify with the born-again dynamic than just conservative white Protestants, and the language of evangelicalism resonates more deeply than ever.

In a real sense, we are all evangelicals now-which is why Kerry was compelled to be more forthcoming about his faith on the stump. Yet in a religious environment in which the "Social Gospel" is suspect and emotional authenticity is the only creed, it is the Catholic John Kerry, a loquacious wonk when it come to public policy, who trips over his own words, while the notoriously inarticulate President Bush becomes fluent and conversant as he discusses his evangelicalism.

Ask George Bush about his own faith life, for example, and he waxes about letting his "light shine" as a Christian, about praying regularly and reading the Bible (which he can quote readily and accurately) every day, of his belief that God is guiding him, both as a Christian and as politician. "I pray all the time," Bush said in the August issue of Charisma magazine. "You don't need a chapel to pray. Whether it is in the Oval Office.you just do it. That's just me."

Bush's language reflects his own path to conversion, from a Connecticut Episcopalian to a kind of free-range evangelical (friends say he prefers the even more generic term, "follower of Christ," which casts a still wider net) who was saved from alcoholism and sin through a born again conversion aided by Billy Graham, "America's pastor." So when Bush invokes the "wonder-working" power of the American people, he is referencing standards from the evangelical hymnal while at the same time communicating with the overriding spiritual culture of an America that may not even know those Sunday School anthems.

Similarly, when Bush answered a question about his favorite political philosopher in a 1999 Republican debate by saying, "Jesus Christ, because he changed my life," the chattering classes chuckled. The rest of America nodded knowingly.

In a "Jesus-haunted" culture in which, as author Richard Wightman Fox puts it, Jesus is "a sacred and secular hero," where bumper stickers declare that "Jesus is My Best Friend," Bush's language makes him mainstream, not a fringe fanatic.

On the other hand, John Kerry may not be the Catholic politician that the Pope would dream about, but when he said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, "I don't wear my own religion on my sleeve," he could have been speaking for millions of his co-religionists who see their faith in terms of doing and being as much as speaking and exhorting.

As St. Francis of Assisi put it, "Always preach the Gospel-use words if you have to." The line may be apocryphal, but it goes to the heart of Catholic practice, of expressing faith through actions, be it attending Mass, doing good works, or confessing regularly-to a priest, of course. Catholics value community as much as they do the individual, shared traditions as much as public pietism. Catholicism is about "building up the Kingdom of God" on earth, whereas evangelicalism focuses on salvation now before the inevitable Apocalypse hits and all is lost.

In short, Catholicism is a religion of sanctification as much as justification-process as much as proselytism-and that emphasis on the deed over the word means that Catholics by and large simply do not possess the American vocabulary of faith.

This holds true on a literal level, as well. Consider that until 40 years ago, the Mass was celebrated in Latin, not to mention the fact that most Catholics were recent immigrants whose mother tongue was not English. Bible study of the kind that was central to Bush's conversion was largely unknown in the Catholic Church until recently, leading to the lament-still widely voiced-that Catholics know their catechism but not the Bible it is based on.

Catholic leaders themselves are growing concerned about the apparent inability of their flock to claim an equal standing in the public pulpit.

In an article titled "Church-ianity and Christ-ianity," published last May in America, a prestigious Jesuit weekly, the Rev. John C. Haughey, a professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago lamented the fact that his Catholic students were often well-versed in Catholic theology, doctrine, social justice teachings and the like, but seemed almost mute when asked to speak about "personal faith statements." His non-Catholic Christian students, on the other hand, would step right up when asked about their relationship with Jesus. Some would see the Catholic approach as faith in a different form.

Theologian David Tracy has argued that Protestants emphasize God's distance from sinful humanity as the starting point of pilgrimage and thus finding salvation. Catholics, on the other hand, take a worldview in which God is close to humanity and is made truly present through material things like oil and water, bread and wine, the sacred physical space of the church. In this world of statues and candles, stained-glass and ashes, processions and holy water, "God and grace lurk everywhere," as the priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley put it in "The Catholic Imagination."

Seen from that perspective, Kerry's remarks in a 1998 interview in American Windsurfer magazine make perfect sense, at least to a Catholic: "I've always been fascinated by the transcendentalists and the pantheists and others who found these great connections just in nature, in trees, the ponds, the ripples of the wind on the pond, the great feast of nature itself," Kerry told the magazine in an excerpt that is making the rounds of conservative Christian web sites and chat rooms. "I think it's all an expression that grows out of this profound respect people have for those forces that human beings struggle to define and to explain. It's all a matter of spirituality."

But not the kind of spirituality that conveys the blessed assurance Americans are seeking. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a leading evangelical proponent, said Kerry's remarks showed "an openness to the worship of nature" and he concluded: "When it comes to orthodox Christianity, there is no wind in Senator Kerry's sail." Marvin Olasky, the born again architect of Bush's philosophy of "compassionate conservatism," declared that Kerry's language shows the Democrat is "once-born," and hence has not found salvation-unlike Olasky himself, and the president.

The rhetorical gulf between Kerry and Bush shows up regularly on the campaign trail.

When asked during their first debate whether the casualties in Iraq were worth it, Bush told a story about meeting the wife of a soldier killed in action, saying that "we prayed and teared up and laughed some." Kerry answered the same question by talking about his "plan" for Iraq. In the third debate Bush was asked about his faith and responded: "Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency." Kerry reiterated a favorite line, "Faith without works is dead," and related that to the need to combat poverty. Kerry did the same in his Florida speeches on Oct. 24, relating the Gospels to his legislative agenda, rather than offering the kid of personal testimony that Bush does so well.

While Bush can speak of his sinful past and personal conversion, Kerry speaks of being an altar boy and carrying a Rosary and a prayer book, and wearing a St. Christopher medal around his neck-important symbols for Catholics, perhaps, but not the kind of faith statements that resonate with the wider American public.

One is the language of conversion, the other of policy; one, the language of the heart, the other of the head.

To be sure, there are signs that the gulf symbolized by Kerry and Bush in this campaign is narrowing. As Catholics continue to assimilate into the culture, many of them are becoming more comfortable with the God-talk once associated with the holiness wing of Protestantism. According to a Gallup survey, 26 percent of Catholics described themselves as "born again" in 2000, up from 12 percent in 1988. On the other side, Bush's unprecedented use of pietistic language to bolster decisions that many liberal evangelicals dislike has spurred an unprecedented effort by many of Bush's fellow believers to tie evangelicalism more closely to social justice policies.

But neither of those trends will be enough to help Kerry or hurt Bush on Nov. 2.

A campaign is an inherently evangelical enterprise, one in which promises of future benefits are the principal lures to conversion, where urgency is paramount and words are the tools to seal the deal. In that context, Kerry's process-oriented Catholicism may limit his appeal, while Bush's personalistic evangelicalism seems tailor-made for success on the stump.

Then again, Kerry's Boston Red Sox won the World Series, so anything is possible.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad