Faith's Role in Politics Murky Americans Want Religious Politicians, as Long as They Don't Talk about It

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, says Jesus Christ is the political philosopher who has most influenced him.

U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, waxes on about the importance of religion in maintaining society's morality.

Such public expressions of faith during the course of the presidential campaign not only draw praise but also touch on a larger question: Just how important will religion be in November's election?

Don't look for a simple answer.

"The role of religion in American politics defies easy explanation," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for The People and the Press, which released a poll on the subject this month.

For example, Americans overwhelmingly want their president to have strong religious beliefs. But far fewer feel comfortable hearing a politician talk about how religious they are.

A paradox? Maybe.

Or perhaps it's an expression of the nuances that voters bring to the matter of faith, personal belief and its proper role in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

Such sentiments suggest that most people exhibit ambivalence when it comes to religion and politics, according to the authors of the Pew poll.

While 70 percent of those surveyed said they want the president to have strong beliefs, barely half of those answering the survey said they felt comfortable with politicians discussing their faith.

A similar divergence in opinion occurred when people were asked about the propriety of churches expressing views on politics and whether it is right for clergymen to discuss politics from their pulpit.

While just over half of those polled said it was proper for churches to express views, less than a third thought it right for a clergyman to take up politics.

These results varied by age and race.

African-Americans show a greater willingness to have their pastor espouse a view. Older people, however, tended to be less comfortable with politics on the pulpit. …