"God is NOT a Republican . . . or a Democrat."
That's the bracing message of a bumper sticker for sale by Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine. It is turning out to be one of the central themes of the 2004 presidential campaign.
Voters are not being presented with a choice between faith-based politics and no faith at all. Instead, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are offering two very different interpretations of what it means for a politician to be religious and, in their cases, Christians.
Yes, cynics would fairly note that both candidates know they have political problems to solve when it comes to religion. Too much God talk is seen as Bush's problem. Too little is seen as Kerry's.
Bush knows some moderate and secular voters are suspicious that his religious faith is the primary driver of his policies. That's why Ron Suskind's New York Times Magazine article Sunday, "Without Doubt: Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," aroused such heartburn among Republicans.
To reassure those who don't share his religious orientation, Bush is going out of his way to cast himself as Mr. Toleration. "I'm mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to, or not," Bush declared in the third debate. "You're equally an American if you choose to worship an Almighty and if you choose not to."
Kerry, on the other hand, has long seemed uneasy whenever he spoke of his Catholic faith. Given that some leaders of Kerry's own church would deny him Communion because of his stand on abortion, the uneasiness is understandable. There are, however, religious swing voters who are more comfortable when politicians give some hint of their religious commitment. That's what Kerry is doing.
But a healthy skepticism about both Bush and Kerry should not obscure the substantive and, I'm guessing, sincere differences in the way these two men talk about their faith.
In the third debate, Bush's emphasis was on faith as something "very personal." He noted that "prayer and religion sustain me," and added: "I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, 'Well, how do you know?' I said, 'I just feel it.' "
Kerry spoke more about the implications of his faith for the pursuit of social justice. He cited the classic scriptural passage from the Letter of James, "Faith without works is dead," and went on: "And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people. That's why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this Earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice."
Now, it would be wrong to say that Bush's faith is free of political implications or that Kerry's is not personal. Bush, after all, spoke of his belief "that God wants everybody to be free," while Kerry said, "My faith affects everything that I do and choose."
But in their differences, Bush and Kerry reflect a tradition of debate among religious people as old as our republic. For some believers, especially conservative Christians, all other issues are secondary to what they see as the "life" issues -- abortion and stem cell research -- and to matters related to law and personal morality, notably gay marriage. For other believers, particularly though not exclusively African American Christians, the fundamental obligation of religious people is to promote government policies aimed at lifting up the poor and protecting the outcasts. Many religious people identify with aspects of both views.
And, as a statement that will be issued by a group of peace-minded Christians later this week will show, religious people also disagree sharply on the issues of war and peace. The statement charges that "a 'theology of war' is emanating from the highest circles of American government" and that "the language of 'righteous empire' is employed with growing frequency." The statement, signed by more than 200 theologians and church leaders, insists that "Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war."
Not all Christians will agree with every sentence in the toughly worded document, but that is the point: Religious people are not monolithic in their views.
Thus may some good come out of this often rancid campaign: The myth that religion lives only on the political right is being exploded, and honest debate among believers will again be a normal part of the nation's public life. That's a benefit to democracy and to faith communities, too.