2016-07-27
Science and Spirit Reprinted with permission from the September 2004 issue of Science and Spirit.

God frequently works in ways so mysterious that belief requires a willingness to accept that, when it comes to matters of the spirit, many things will never be known for certain. Purity of heart, love of God, concern with sin, fidelity to the truth-these are the qualities believers tend to admire. The world beyond this one is as alive and well to the believer as the world around us. Judgment Day is what matters, and when that day arrives, squabbles about tax policy or positions on free trade will seem trivial stuff indeed.

Success in politics, by contrast, requires a laser-like focus on this world-and a corresponding reluctance to wait for more perfect times before taking action. Particularly nowadays, when one gaffe can doom an entire campaign, politics has truly become a science, as virtually nothing, from travel arrangements to the choice of a running mate, can be left to the unknown. Fearful of offending anyone, politicians speak not the truth as revealed to them by God, but the words tested by focus groups and polls. Determined to win, they look the other way in the face of such sins as negative campaigning and the sometimes immoral, if not illegal, activities involved in financing political campaigns. Once elected, the task of governing requires as much certainty as campaigning.

Despite the fact that religion and politics appeal to radically different temperaments-and that many of us are uncomfortable mixing the two-we have grown accustomed to assuming that religion will shape politics and that politics will shape religion. The 2004 presidential election has been the most prayerful in modern memory. George W. Bush turned to Jesus to straighten out his personal life while in his forties, received the call to run for president at Austin's Tarrytown United Methodist Church in 1999, and prayed for strength from God as he made the decision to go to war in Iraq last year. It is not a stretch to conclude that he, and many of his supporters, believe that as president, he has a special responsibility, not only to advocate this policy or that, but also to see that God's work is done.


John F. Kerry, a Catholic, is not as public in his expressions of faith as Bush, yet such is the nature of American campaigning that we have learned a great deal about his beliefs anyway. We know that he typically takes communion at Boston's Paulist Center and that he strongly endorses the changes in Catholic worship and doctrine ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. We know of his wife's Catholic upbringing and her current religious convictions (including her support of, but also discomfort with, a woman's right to choose). The mere fact that Kerry has been discussing his faith at all, especially given that he is less comfortable than Bush in doing so, is a testament to how common it has become in the United States for politicians to bring God into their speeches and acts.

No other wealthy liberal democracy requires public professions of faith from their political leaders to the degree that the United States does. And rarely in our history have we assigned religion as prominent a place in our politics as we do now. Who remembers the church to which Harry Truman or Gerald Ford belonged? Why is it, one might rightly ask, that a society generally viewed as the most modern in the world is one that these days is either unwilling or unable to separate faith from politics?

The answer to this question cannot be September 11, since it was during the election preceding the terrorist attacks that Bush cited Jesus as the political philosopher he most identifies with. Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was also unabashed about bringing God into the campaign. It is certainly true that since September 11, our public talk has been filled with religious terms such as "good" and "evil." Yet we were already prepared to understand the terrorist attacks in those terms, since they were essentially the same ones in which we had viewed the Cold War.

More credible is the belief that the separation of church and state actually infuses our politics with religion. From Thomas Jefferson to the contemporary followers of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Constitution's First Amendment has been viewed as protecting government from the sectarianism and dogmatism associated with religion. For those who hold to this point of view, George W. Bush, or any other politician who puts his faith front and center, is violating one of our most established constitutional principles.

Yet understood in another sense, the separation of church and state was bound to produce candidates who frequently invoke the deity. Where religion is official and established, religion atrophies, society becomes more secular, and candidates would never think of adopting confessional positions while campaigning. Europeans have had a history of linking church and state by establishing one religion as the official one. While in theory an established church should be a strong one, since it can count on the state for funding and support for its views concerning public policy, in practice such churches are somewhat like state monopolies. So secure is their position, they neglect to adapt to the needs of their congregants, and before long, they find their pews empty and their advice ignored.

In America, by contrast, the separation of church and state protects religion from government more than the other way around. It is true that when religion is private and sustained by voluntary contributions, it has no guaranteed financial support and must compete with other faiths to have its views reflected in the law. But rather than weakening religion, competition strengthens it-no church in America can survive without trying to find out what Americans expect from the spiritual marketplace, and then offering to provide it. When religion is divorced from government, it pours into and shapes just about everything else. Politicians appeal to God because in spite of differences in income, race, gender, and geography, belief in God is one thing that nearly all Americans share.

Americans were once expected to live in one place, to work for one company, and to be married to one person for their entire lives. Stable institutions shaped their worldviews and determined how they would act politically. If they belonged to unions, they tended to vote for the Democrats. If they owned the company, the Republican candidate would likely be their choice. Political parties took these patterns, and organized themselves as stable institutions around them. In Chicago, the Daley machine got you to the polls. In Maine and New Hampshire, Republican identification was an inherited characteristic.

These days, Americans change jobs, get divorced, move from coast to coast, and register as Independents. Few of America's institutions are working the way they were once expected to, and even fewer retain the stability they once possessed. Religion in America has not been immune from these trends; in fact, close to half of Americans switch their faith over the course of their lives, just as Bush did when he left his father's Episcopal church to join his wife's Methodist one. Many Americans-not just evangelicals-make a distinction between faith and church or denomination. They appreciate a personal relationship with the Lord more than loyalty to an institution. It is important that you believe; what you believe matters less.

Unlike nearly all other Americans, both Bush and Kerry come from backgrounds of privilege. But if the God they believe in is the same one a steelworker in Ohio or a housewife in Tucson believes in, then through their faith they find a place to touch base with ordinary Americans. In a world of uncertain attachments to institutions, Americans are looking for clues from their leaders before they decide to vote for them, and speaking about God is perhaps the most important way of offering those clues.

The political advantages of talking about God are obvious-to this day, self-professed atheists simply do not make serious runs for the presidency. Presidential candidates are unlikely to pass up photo ops with religious leaders or participation in the National Day of Prayer. Still, blending religious and political sensibilities is no easy task. While Republicans and Democrats will continue to confront different issues leading up to the elections, they will likely arrive at similar solutions.


In a widely cited comment, Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, pointed to the 4 million evangelical Protestants who did not vote in 2000, and suggested that the president do everything in his power to secure their votes in 2004. The president has clearly taken that advice. One of his first decisions was to find a "compromise" on stem cell research, which essentially gave religious conservatives everything they asked for. He signed, with great fanfare and surrounded by conservative clergy, a law that would restrict internal dilation and extraction procedures-or so-called partial-birth abortions. He promulgated an executive order designed to put his plan for faith-based delivery of social services into action. He did not fire General William Boykin, an evangelical military leader, when he made disparaging remarks about Islam. And Bush endorsed the idea of amending the Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage.

All these moves no doubt please Bush's conservative religious supporters, but there is a historic irony underlying the president's actions they may not fully appreciate. American evangelicalism, especially America's largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has long been committed to the separation of church and state, which is one reason the denomination criticized the Bush administration's plan to register voters through evangelical churches. Establishing one religion as the official one, in the view of conservative Protestants, smacks of Catholicism. Protestantism, for them, flourished in this country because America was committed to democracy and voluntarism-both strongly held Protestant, and specifically evangelical, values.

By blending politics and religion the way he has, President Bush has helped nudge evangelical Protestantism in a more "Catholic" direction. Whenever religious leaders develop a checklist of policies they want from the government, and announce they will hold politicians accountable for meeting or failing to meet their demands, they are acting in ways that any member of the religious hierarchy of a European Catholic country would understand. The more Bush moves to satisfy his evangelical base, the more he helps transform American evangelicalism into a very different kind of religion than it historically has been.

Interestingly enough, Senator Kerry faces the exact same problem-except in reverse. If President Bush is helping to shift evangelicals in the direction of European Catholicism, Senator Kerry's response has been to move American Catholicism in a more "Protestant" direction. A Catholic, Kerry holds to a faith that has long believed political figures should be accountable to their Church. In April, Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria, frequently mentioned as a candidate to be the next pope, announced that U.S. bishops should consider denying communion to any American politician who breaks with the Church's teachings. (While he did not mention Senator Kerry by name, the implication was obvious.) In doing this, the cardinal acted very much like those evangelicals who insist Republicans take positions on abortion or gay rights that accord with their faith.

Following the precedent set by John Kennedy, Kerry has insisted he would not be bound by the Catholic hierarchy were he to be elected president. When he emphasizes the personal and private side of his faith, Kerry espouses views on religion and politics that have more in common with nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism than with twentieth-century European Catholicism.


Although they started from very different places, the presidential candidates have moved closer to each other's positions throughout the 2004 campaign. Bush, while having to please his evangelical base, also understands that too close an identification with the religious right will cause him to lose support among moderates-as well as those evangelicals who have not accepted the efforts of conservative Protestant clergy to become something like an established church.

The fact that the president has not shifted his position on stem cell research, even after the death of former President Ronald Reagan gave him the opportunity to do so, may be explained by the fear that changing his position would undermine his claims that his opponent is a flip-flopper. On this issue, the president may have painted himself into a corner-no doubt pleasing some religious conservatives by his resolute action, but perhaps alienating the Reagan family and other conservatives who hold that "pro-life" means trying to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

In a similar fashion, Kerry cannot simply write off Catholic support, given the fact that Catholics are America's largest religious denomination and tend to cluster in swing states such as Ohio. For all his "pro-choice" votes, he has been careful to remind voters that he personally opposes abortion, that he agrees with the Catholic Church's regard for social justice, and that he is sympathetic to its opposition to capital punishment. It is one thing for a Catholic politician to say that his votes will be dictated to him by the Vatican and another to say that as a Catholic, he has been influenced by an ethical stance insistent on the common good. These are not the easiest distinctions to make, but Senator Kerry, like nearly all Catholic Democrats, has had to make them for some time.

There are not, and there never will be, easy answers to the difficult relationship between politics and religion. Clearest, perhaps, is their need for each other:While faith is otherworldly, no successful religion can ignore the real world of fund raising, political power, and international conflict; while politics is concerned with the here and now, no stable political system can exist without addressing the moral questions that are traditionally asked by religion. In each campaign season-as in each form of worship-the right balance between religion and politics is sought and shaped anew. This year's election will offer up an especially interesting performance of politics and religion influencing each other, and will set the stage for future elections- and future generations-to continue seeking the balances that work best for them.

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