Candidates emphasize religion in campaigns

by Ithan Peltan | 10/18/00 5:00am

Politics and religion are the two topics one doesn't discuss in polite company. Right?

If that's the case, though, what in the world is Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore doing telling reporters that when he makes decisions, the phrase "What would Jesus do?" will be on his mind?

And what possible political reason could Texas Governor George W. Bush have for choosing Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher when asked, and for declaring a "Jesus Day" in his state over the summer?

In the 2000 presidential campaign, the subjects of religion and politics are either "going head-to-head," "coming face-to-face" or "intersecting in new ways" -- depending on whom you ask, of course.

Praying for votes?

The public demonstrations of religious belief and faith made by the candidates of both the major parties in campaign 2000 have drawn plenty of notice.

"Religion sort of goes in and out of vogue as a topic," government professor Angelina Means said. "It appears that religion has taken on a new voice in the public sphere," at least in the short term.

To some extent, though, religion plays a role in each election, and candidates often demonstrate their religious beliefs for two political reasons.

First, candidates like to show that they are "one of the people." When, according to Gallup polls, nearly 90 percent of Americans see religion as a very or fairly important influence in their lives, being an average American means that one demonstrates one's faith in order to get elected.

"Increasingly, the public has come to demand some show of religiosity," government professor Dean Spiliotes said, noting that Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley's decision not to do so during the primary campaigns hurt him when voters made their decisions.

Second, in the aftermath of the scandals during Bill Clinton's presidency, many Americans are very concerned about the moral state of the nation, according to numerous polls. In other words, character is a big issue in this presidential election.

Since religiosity is often seen as a measure of a character and moral fiber, expressions of faith have emerged as a way for candidates to show their wholesome American values. "For some people, religion and character are intimately related," Spiliotes said.

To some extent, however, the increased "God-talk" from the candidates may not be politically motivated, but may simply result from changing attitudes. "We're more tolerant today than we were 20 years ago," government professor Lynn Vavreck said. "The electorate has reached a place now where they're not worried about a serious violation of church and state."

Now that the candidates do not risk alienating any important groups of voters by expressing their faith, they may simply be honestly communicating who they are to the public, she said.

Father John McHugh, director of Aquinas House, said he hopes this is the case. "I'd like to believe that they're just expressing their particular beliefs."

A Jewish candidate

When Gore named Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, as his running mate, he may have opened a new era in America's historical balancing act between religion and government. If elected, Lieberman will become vice president as not just the highest-ranking Jew in American political history, but also will be remembered as a trailblazer.

Lieberman's nomination is a triumph over a history of prejudice not only against Jews, but against all minority groups, Rabbi Edward Boraz, director of the Roth Center for Jewish Life, said. "It's just a statement that someone from a minority faith, regardless of his religious views, could be an asset."

Al-Nur advisor Amin Plaisted agreed. "A lot of people identified with the opening up of the system."

Times have changed in the last 40 years. The only historical precedent for Lieberman's nomination is the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic. During his campaign, Kennedy's Catholicism was a major issue, prompting him to pledge his religion would not be a direct factor in his decision making if he were elected.

Lieberman, in contrast, has made no such pledge or any statement approaching it. In fact, prayer has been a regular element of his speeches.

Of course, Lieberman wasn't chosen purely for the precedent his Jewish faith would set. In part, the selection was calculated to demonstrate Gore's "chutzpah" and to bring reinvest the campaign with energy.

Lieberman is also a long time Gore friend and ally, and his harsh criticism of Clinton's behavior in office on the floor of the Senate helped distance Gore from the man with whom he shared two campaign tickets.

"It was a good choice. It made total sense," Spiliotes said.

But in the reality of the modern electoral process, Lieberman's nomination matters only in a symbolic sense.

Historically, the choice of a vice-presidential running mate makes little impact on voter behavior, government professor Lynn Vavreck said.

"Vice-presidential selection has almost never made a difference," Vavreck said. "There's no evidence that people make their choice based on the vice president."

What about the bias question? Will anti-Semitism hurt the Gore ticket in November? It's very unlikely, said those who spoke with The Dartmouth.

According to polls following Lieberman's nomination, while voters viewed the nomination favorably, there was no significant or long-lasting up or down shift in Gore's standing as a result of his choice of running mate.

A changing dynamic

When religion and politics intersect, a discussion of issues can get very complicated, involving the separation of church and state, the role of government in promoting moral values, God and the schools -- and the list goes on.

Statements Lieberman made in August on the campaign trail advocating a larger role for religion in public life raised some concerns on several fronts.

Even one outspoken Jewish rights group, the Anti-Defamation League, urged the vice-presidential hopeful to be wary of breaching the civilly sacred divide between church and state.

But few believe that the emphasis on faith in the campaigns signals their translation into governmental policy later on, whether Gore or Bush wins.

"If you think about the types of policies that [the candidates] are pursuing, there really isn't any aspect of their religiosity," Spiliotes said.

Some, however, did say that candidates, regardless of their particular religious tradition, must be careful not to make a public issue of what is in reality a very personal one.

"I don't think its something that anybody has to hide, but I don't think it's pertinent to political office," McHugh of Aquinas House said.

"I think that the Jewish community feels a little bit uneasy when that faith is expressed in the context of a political campaign," Rabbi Edward Boraz, director of the Roth Center for Jewish Life, agreed.

When push comes to shove, what does it matter what the candidates are saying about religion and faith?

"To be perfectly honest, I don't take a lot of it seriously, McHugh said. "Jesus never ran to be president of the United States."

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