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Religion Plays a Key Role in American Politics

Rev. Robert Sirico

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In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, much to the shock and awe of the intellectual elites, the race has come around to religion. Both candidates touched on their faith in Wednesday night's debate -- the subject they believe will tip swing voters in their direction. Mind you, the goal is not for each candidate to distance himself from faith, as it might happen in many secular democracies. Rather, the candidate seeks to show he takes religion seriously.

The overwhelming majority of American voters place a high priority on religious concerns in their private lives; they want to vote for candidates who share that sensibility. This is why Europeans, who care little about religion, think we are crazy. Three in four Americans consider themselves to be active Christians (compared with 13 percent who consider themselves nonreligious or secular), half of whom are active in a house of worship on a weekly basis.

In Western Europe, while 80 percent express some belief in God, only half give this belief high importance. Only one in five is active in a church.

Is there something going on that contradicts the spirit of separating church and state? Paradoxically, the emphasis on the faith of the candidates grows out of this sense of separation. Just because something is not required by law does not mean it is not hugely important in our lives. We don't have an established church, but we tend to look to the individual faiths of our leadership as a guide. We want to know that their consciences will lead them to consider the deeper spiritual implications of their policies.

This is a reasonable demand by the voters, especially when you consider that the president, arguably, has the most powerful job on earth. We know what Lord Acton said about power and its tendencies. We are wise to look for candidates who respect authorities higher than themselves. The faith of George Bush has been part of his political identity. But the same was true of his predecessor, William Clinton, who spoke at religious meetings and campaigned at churches. Looking back further, I can think of no president who did not appeal to religious themes. John Kerry's camp is reported to be feeling the heat because he did not say enough in the early part of his campaign about his religious convictions. He speaks about policy in terms of science and public well being, but rarely about deeper religious values.

This pleases many core Democrat voters, who are widely seen as more secular than the Republican faithful. It is also a habit developed by the older generation of Catholic politicians who saw how John Kennedy was treated so negatively because of his religion. Of course times were different. Today, no one worries that the pope is going to be secretly using the U.S. president as a puppet.

Indeed, Kerry has an opposite problem. A recent poll by Pew found that only 43 percent of Catholics know that he is Catholic. He also contends with what is being called a "religion gap." He is trailing Bush among white Catholics. To bolster his credentials, Kerry has begun speaking more openly about his faith, the Rosary he prayed in Vietnam and the crucifix he wears today.

The danger, of course, is that this will come across as a cynical move to win votes - which seems worse when done with religion than with any other issue. To be thoughtful and careful in the application of religious doctrine is a value; to use religious belief in an attempt to gain favor among undecided voters smacks of manipulation and even demagoguery. We will hear more about how the candidates measure up against the teachings of their respective denominations. It is a reminder that to separate church and state is not to kick it out of the civic life. On the contrary, the voluntary nature of American religion has secured its status.

Fr. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids.

The article was published in the Detroit News. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 10/21/04

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