Dec 17, 1999

With less than a year to go, the race for national preacher is on. What? You didn't know the United States had a national preacher?

Tell that to most of the men who are ostensibly running for the presidency. More and more regularly the candidates feel the need to explain their theological beliefs and personal religious experiences.

In the televised Iowa Republican debate on Dec. 13, a question from the audience prompted a prime example. The question was actually quite clever: "What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?"

The first respondent, Steve Forbes, spoke of John Locke and his influence on Thomas Jefferson. When the question came to George W. Bush, his response was: "Christ, because he changed my heart."

Asked by a panelist to tell the viewers more about how Jesus changed his heart, the Texas governor observed, "Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart and changes your life. And that's what happened to me."

Several of the other candidates joined the chorus. Orrin Hatch quickly responded that he thought the Christ explanation "goes without saying--no question in my mind." He then brought up Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, before closing with another religious affirmation. "But I bear witness to Christ, too," Hatch said. "I really know him to be the savior of the world. And that means more to me than almost anything else I know."

Shortly thereafter Gary Bauer started quoting Scripture and noted that Christ "through his life, his death and his resurrection has changed the world for millions, billions, countless of people."

Now, if I were on the search committee for a new pastor of the church I attend, these would be wonderful answers that I would want to explore in greater detail. However, as a voter I am not particularly interested in such responses.

Although many politicians seem to believe that sticking their fingers into the wind to measure its direction constitutes a political philosophy, those with more thoughtful responses do tell us something important. What is the role of the state in our constitutional system, and how does it mesh with the individual liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights? What is the proper relationship between sovereign states on this globe? Religious responses, particularly personal professions of faith, don't help us much with such questions.

Lest anyone think I am concerned only about Republicans, let's look at the approach of some candidates of other parties. Pat Buchanan, seeking the Reform Party nomination, opined that he knew the "true faith" (Christianity) and said he "would like all folks to come to it." One of Al Gore's top policy advisers, Elaine Kamarck, told a newspaper this summer, "The Democratic Party is going to take God back this time." In spite of the controversy generated by the remark, the vice president has not repudiated or even clarified this hubris-saturated declaration.

As a matter of fact, Gore proclaimed himself a born-again Christian in an interview on "60 Minutes." He also told The Washington Post he often asks himself, "W.W.J.D....What would Jesus do?"--a catch phrase popular on Christian bracelets and bric-a-brac these days. The Gore campaign even waffled repeatedly on whether "creationism" can be taught in schools.

What should one make of all this?

I don't expect that candidates or political leaders will or should forget all their religious principles when they step into a government building. On the other hand, one cannot avoid the sense that this election cycle more than any other is filled with people pandering to voters on the basis of religious affiliation.

In one discussion I had with the acerbic Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News Channel, he noted that he wanted a president who knew right from wrong because the current occupant of the Oval Office does not. Of course, saying you have a Jesus connection doesn't really tell much about how your moral compass will point on specific issues. There are even plenty of biblical verses that remind readers that it is by actions, not words, that one should measure commitment to God.

Moreover, even in the pre-Bill of Rights Constitution, there is a prohibition on any "religious test for public office." The intent there surely encapsulates a sense that a constitutional republic should not be one in which theology governs. Obviously, voters can cast ballots for people for any reason, from religion to shoe size, but clearly the Framers understood that secular decision-making is the real framework for this new nation.

Perhaps there will be a national backlash to the politicizing of religion. I would not hold my breath, however, for such a time. At least, in the event that some questioner in another debate asks the candidates for their favorite color, we can hope they all don't answer "Jesus."

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.