Politicians Getting into the 'Spirit' of Things by Jamie Dettmer

Insight on the News, February 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Politicians Getting into the 'Spirit' of Things by Jamie Dettmer


Byline: Jamie Dettmer, INSIGHT

Times have changed and so, too, politics. Back in 1960, John F. Kennedy boosted his election campaign by declaring that he believed "in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair." That position helped JFK disarm foes out to foment voter concern about possible Vatican influence on a Kennedy-led administration. But if he were running today, Kennedy would have little choice but to wear his religious faith on his sleeve.

Until recently, Democratic front-runner Howard Dean didn't appear to appreciate the importance religion increasingly is playing in presidential elections. After a hefty shove from the New Republic in a perceptive article in which it asserted the former Vermont governor had a "religion problem," Dean began trying to soften his political explanation for his defection from the Episcopal Church to the Congregationalists.

He had explained before Christmas in a TV interview that he left the Episcopalians because of irritation at his local church's reluctance to cede land for a bike trail. Not much of John Bunyan in that passage.

Just after Christmas, Dean started introducing religious references in his stump speeches and promised to introduce religion more broadly as the primary race enters Southern territory later in February. "I am pretty religious. I pray every day, but I'm from New England, so I just keep it to myself," he said in one speech. That may not be inspiring enough in these days of confessional politics when personal narratives are all the rage on the campaign trail, but it does mark a shift in Dean rhetoric, and an essential one if he wants to mount a real challenge to George W. Bush. That is, if Dean secures his party's nomination.

A 2000 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 70 percent of Americans want their president to be religious. Statewide polls in swing states have confirmed this. In Ohio, three out of five respondents said a candidate's religious beliefs were at least somewhat important in deciding which candidate would get their vote. And 90 percent said a candidate's ability to improve the country's moral climate is important.

The prominent role religion is taking in U.S. elections stands in marked contrast to election rhetoric in far more secular Western Europe.

Talk of religion, say, in anticlerical France could wreck a candidate. In Britain, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher have been about the only two successful postwar British politicians willing to talk about their Christian faith, but then only with restraint and sparingly. Blair's aides have played down the importance of shared religious beliefs in the friendship between the British prime minister and President Bush, fearful that shining a spotlight on that aspect of the relationship could irritate the Brits, who tend to squirm at too much open talk of religion.

By contrast, in the United States religion has been gaining greater prominence in electioneering since born-again Sunday-school teacher Jimmy Carter tapped into Southern white evangelism to win the White House.

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