Magazine article Newsweek

Finding God: On the Trail, the Front Runners Are Confessing Their Religious Faiths. What They Believe-And Whether It Really Matters

Magazine article Newsweek

Finding God: On the Trail, the Front Runners Are Confessing Their Religious Faiths. What They Believe-And Whether It Really Matters

Article excerpt

In Washington, Eugene McCarthy once observed, only two kinds of religion are tolerated: vague beliefs strongly affirmed and strong beliefs vaguely expressed. His witticism bespoke the genial religiosity of presidents like Eisenhower (vague expression) and Reagan (vague beliefs)--not to mention the benign and undiscriminating White House chaplaincy of Billy Graham. The lesson for candidates seems to be: if you want to be president of all the people, invoke a generic deity everyone can salute.

But in Campaign 2000, vague is out--at least among the two front runners. George W. Bush, with a Christian right to consider, has let the world know that his heart belongs to Jesus. Al Gore, after intellectually sojourning among New Age mystics, talks about his faith, declaring to one audience that he is "a child of the Kingdom and a person of strong faith." In separate interviews, John McCain asserted his deep Christian beliefs, and even the reticent Bill Bradley reluctantly went on record: "The basic question is, do I believe in God? And the answer is yes."

It was not a particularly controversial admission. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in some kind of God, and 85 percent identify themselves as Christians. In times of crisis, especially, presidents have always raided the larder of religion to rally the nation's spirit. McCain, whose faith was tested in Hanoi torture chambers, finds it "impossible" to imagine "that a nation which is grounded in Judeo-Christian principles would somehow select someone [for president] who would repudiate those principles." Even Bradley, who continues to keeps his religious convictions essentially private, allows that religious faith "has an impact on all aspects of life, including what one does... as a politician."

Religious doctrine is not the issue. What counts is what the hopefuls have made of their religion--and what their religion has made of them--that might bear on presidential vision and public policy. The leading candidates' religious rhetoric should not be taken for a political platform: a careful look at the four front runners' public statements, and NEWSWEEK interviews with each, suggests that their individual faiths shed more light on their life journeys than on what they would do in the White House.

From the beginning of the Republic, America has struggled to reconcile religion with the dynamics of a democracy. Thomas Jefferson invoked the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, and the nation has always been guided, at least in part, by a sense of divine mission. But when you get down to specifics, history offers little evidence of direct interplay between faith and presidential leadership. Four presidents were preachers' kids--Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover. Of these only Wilson, a former president of Princeton, had serious theological training. Yet his exacting Calvinist thirst for perfection led him to reject U.S. membership in a less-than-perfect League of Nations. Jimmy Carter was manifestly the most pious of modern presidents, but the prayerful "partnership with God" he sought in the White House was not rewarded with a second term.

The four men trying to make history this year have all migrated from their inherited religious traditions. Bush, whose father is Episcopalian, taught Presbyterian Sunday school as a bachelor and became a Methodist when he married. When he declares, as he did in a televised debate, that Jesus "changed my heart," Bush is speaking the language of Wesleyan piety--but one that Texas Baptists readily understand.

Gore has been a Southern Baptist all his life, but not the kind that any fundamentalist would recognize. In a year of spiritual searching at Vanderbilt's Divinity School, Gore studied primitive religions and contemporary mind-body philosophy as well as the Hebrew prophets. Unlike most Southern Baptists, Gore does not center his religious life on a local congregation. …

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