Putting God Back In Politics

As the Democratic candidates for president attend religious

services for the holidays, their celebrations may be tempered by

an uncomfortable fact: churchgoing Americans tend to vote

Republican.

An overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves to be

religious. Yet according to the Pew Research Center for the

People and the Press, people who attend church more than once a

week vote Republican by 63 percent to 37 percent; people who

seldom or never attend vote Democratic by 62 percent to 38

percent.

This disparity should concern Democrats - if not as a matter of

faith then as a matter of politics. More important, it should

concern anyone who cares about the role of religion in public

life. By failing to engage Republicans in this debate, the

Democrats impoverish us all.

President Bush and the Republicans clearly have an advantage

with people of faith as an election year approaches. Republicans

are more comfortable talking about religious values and issues,

and they are quick to promise that their faith will affect their

policies (even if, like their Democratic counterparts, they

don't always follow through on their campaign promises).

President Bush is as public and expressive about his faith as

any recent occupant of the White House. Among his first acts as

president was to establish the Office of Faith-Based and

Community Initiatives, which helps religious and community

groups get federal financing for some of their work. Although

the "faith-based initiative" has turned out to be more symbolic

than substantial, symbolism matters - in religion as well as

politics.

The Democratic candidates, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with

the subject of religion. (The exception is Joseph Lieberman,

though even he seems less comfortable now than he was in 2000.)

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.

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 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his

faith to himself?

Howard Dean, the leading challenger to President Bush,

illustrates the Democrats' problem. Dr. Dean recently said he

left his church in Vermont over a dispute about a bike path, and

explained that his faith does not inform his politics. He has

also said the presidential race should stay away from the issues

of "guns, God and gays" and focus on jobs, health care and

foreign policy.

By framing the issue in this way - declining to discuss overtly

"religious" topics - Dr. Dean allows Republicans to define the

terms of the debate. The "religious issues" in this election

will be reduced to the Ten Commandments in public courthouses,

marriage amendments, prayer in schools and, of course, abortion.

These issues are important. But faith informs policy in other

areas as well. What about the biblical imperatives for social

justice, the God who lifts up the poor, the Jesus who said,

"blessed are the peacemakers"?

How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the

Bush administration's failure to support poor working families

should be named as 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 (a

fact not changed by the capture of Saddam Hussein).

Such issues could pose problems for the Bush administration

among religious and nonreligious people alike - if someone were

to define them in moral terms. The failure of the Democrats to

do so is not just a political miscalculation. It shows they do

not appreciate the contributions of religion to American life.

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.

The separation of church and state does not require banishing

moral and religious values from the public square. America's

social fabric depends on such values and vision to shape our

politics - a dependence the founders recognized.

It is indeed possible (and necessary) to express one's faith and

convictions about public policy while still respecting the

pluralism of American democracy. Rather than suggesting that we

not talk about "God," Democrats should be arguing - on moral and

even religious grounds - that all Americans should have economic

security, health care and educational opportunity, and that true

faith results in a compassionate concern for those on the

margins.

Democrats should be saying that a just foreign and military

policy will not only work better, but also be more consistent

with both our democratic and spiritual values. And they must

offer a moral alternative to a national security policy based

primarily on fear, and say what most Americans intuitively know:

that defeating terrorism is both practically and spiritually

connected to the deeper work of addressing global poverty and

resolving the conflicts that sow the bitter seeds of despair and

violence.

Many of these policy choices can be informed and shaped by the

faith of candidates and citizens - without transgressing the

important boundaries of church and state.

God is always personal, but never private. The Democrats are

wrong to restrict religion to the private sphere - just as the

Republicans are wrong to define it solely in terms of individual

moral choices and sexual ethics. Allowing the right to decide

what is a religious issue would be both a moral and political

tragedy.

Not everyone in America has the same religious values, of

course. And many moral lessons are open to interpretation. But

by withdrawing into secularism, the Democrats deprive Americans

of an important debate.

Jim Wallis is editor of Sojourners magazine and the convener of

Call to Renewal, a national network of churches working to

overcome poverty.

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