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Religious values have a place in politics

Published January 4, 2004

Pat Robertson has really done it this time. He has spoiled this presidential election even before the first vote is cast. On the second day of the New Year he took away the suspense and told us what the outcome will be. So I guess it really doesn't matter whether Howard Dean can get a grip on his tongue or even who wins the Democratic nomination. It's over already because Robertson had a little talk with Jesus and has it on the highest authority that President Bush will be re-elected in a landslide.

"I think George Bush is going to win in a walk," the religious broadcaster told his 700 Club television audience on Friday. "I really believe I'm hearing from the Lord it's going to be a blowout election in 2004. . . . The Lord has just blessed him (Bush). I mean, he could make terrible mistakes and come out of it. It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad, God picks him up because he's a man of prayer and God's blessing him."

To listen to Robertson's accounts of his long-distance conversations with God over the years, you would have to conclude that God is partial to Republicans. Actually, it may be the other way around.

George Bush may not be God's chosen one, as Pat Robertson suggests, but Republicans do have a big political advantage among Americans who consider themselves religious. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, people who attend church once a week vote Republican 63 percent to 37 percent; people who seldom or never attend church vote Democratic by 62 percent to 38 percent.

Instead of just dismissing Robertson as a religious extremist and demonizing the so-called religious right, Democrats need to get religion, and by that I mean they need to become more comfortable with speaking to people of faith on religious values and moral lessons that shape our politics and social fabric. They have all but ceded that ground to Republicans.

In a recent column in the New York Times (it was reprinted in this newspaper on Dec. 30), Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, wrote that Republicans are "more comfortable talking about religious values and issues, and they are quick to promise that their faith will affect their policies."

Most Democratic presidential candidates, by contrast, seem uncomfortable with the subject of religion. "They stumble over themselves to assure voters that while they may be people of faith, they won't allow their religious beliefs to affect their political views," Wallis wrote. "For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would America be if Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself? . . . The United States has a long history of religious faith supporting and literally driving progressive causes and movements. From the abolition of slavery to women's suffrage to civil rights, religion has led the way for social change."

Wallis believes Democrats are making a mistake by not engaging Republicans on religious and moral values. He wrote: "How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the Bush administration's failure to support poor working families should be named a religious failure. Neglect of the environment is a religious issue. Fighting pre-emptive and unilateral wars based on false claims is a religious issue."

Respect for pluralism and separation of church and state do "not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square," he added.

Howard Dean, the Democratic front-runner, is a good example of the problem Democrats have with the subject of religion in the political arena. He has said his faith does not inform his politics, and that Democrats should steer clear of such issues as "guns, God and gays" in this election (you can't bet the Republicans won't, and Democrats need to be ready). Dean has said he doesn't go to church "very often" and that he left the Episcopal Church in a dispute over a bike path. Lately, as he has shifted his political attention to South Carolina, in the heart of the Bible Belt, he has started using the J-word. He recently told the Boston Globe that he prays daily and plans to talk more about how Jesus serves as his "model." Dean sounds like he has undergone a political conversion - not a religious one.

Frankly, the Democrats can never compete with Republicans when it comes to dropping Jesus' name on the campaign trail. They would do well to take Jim Wallis' advice and hold Republicans accountable for the disconnect between their profession of religious values and their policy decisions. Contrary to what Pat Robertson says, George Bush is not home free, not by a long shot. And it will be the voters - not God - who decide this election.

[Last modified January 4, 2004, 01:16:08]

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