“I can assure you in my talks with God, He is not a registered member of the right wing of the Republican Party.”
— Presidential candidate Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal minister, during a December debate.
Religious speech is in vogue in politics. It also helps (check the statistics) if you are a tall, Caucasian male.
“We’re in a religion fad now,” said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boston College Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life in a recent edition of NCR. He reminds us that “nobody really remembers FDR’s religion, or George H.W. Bush’s for that matter, which is different from his son’s. The only time John Kennedy mentioned his religion was when he distanced himself from it.” But today we hear both the president and the presidential candidates touting their religious experiences since recent polls assert that a candidate must woo church-goers in order to win the election.
1 Christian religion, many different politics
Bush :: Methodist
Kerry :: Roman Catholic
Edwards :: Methodist
Sharpton :: Pentecostal
Kucinich :: Roman Catholic
Although the five remaining presidential candidates (as well as former candidates like Howard Dean and Wesley Clark) claim some version of Christianity as their religion, the way their religious beliefs affects their political decisions varies considerably. For example, it appears that President Bush follows one biblical interpretation when he disagrees with same-sex unions, but Howard Dean (who was raised Episcopalian, but is currently a Congregationalist) spoke about following another scriptural interpretation during his recently abandoned campaign run. Dean suggests that since “since the hallmark of being a Christian is to reach out to people who have been left behind” that “there was a religious aspect to my decision to support civil unions” (The Washington Post, January 8, 2004).
Other democratic candidates also claim that their particular interpretation of faith inspires their political decisions. Edwards agrees that “a lot of the things that are part of my faith belief [are] also part of my political belief. My responsibilities to others, to help others” (Edwards, Beliefnet Interview, December 3, 2003). Kucinich refers to the Gospel of Matthew’s questions “When I was hungry did you feed me? When I was homeless did you shelter me?” and says that his work in Ohio and congress “resounds with that connection to higher principles” (Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 2004).
As much as religion is a part of my life, when I decide who will get my vote in the presidential election I look beyond a mere subscription to religious beliefs to see if the candidate’s faith and values inspire him to work for justice in politics. I want to make sure I vote for someone who will work with compassion for the poor, not just compassionate conservatism.
But it is difficult to see past the religious and political labels to discover a candidate’s record on issues such as education, healthcare, or welfare. Three instruments that helped me discover what a candidate really believes are:
- the congressional voting record for the candidates who have held national office,
- CNN’s chart of candidate’s political stances, and
- ontheissues.org, a comprehensive record of candidates’ soundbites on a variety of important issues.
Can religion be a fashion faux pas?
Although a candidate’s actions speak larger to me than their professed faith, religion will remain a prominent feature in campaign vocabulary.
Kerry is one candidate who acknowledges that religious speech might help a campaign but that a candidate’s speech and actions as a president need to go beyond his personal religious beliefs. Kerry says that a president should gather “people together around a set of values that we share as a nation.” (Beliefnet Interview, December 16, 2003).
Well, whatever style a candidate hopes to use as president, it is clear that the image one must fashion for this year’s presidential campaign is one that includes religion.
And lest I be out of style, let me not forget to add: May God bless America.