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Talk That Diminishes Faith

By Tom Beaudoin
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page A25

This may sound impolitic and even un-Christian, particularly coming from a Christian theologian, but I don't want to hear any more from the presidential candidates about their personal faith.

The candidates aren't going to heed me, of course. During the debates, President Bush proclaimed the importance of his Christian faith, saying, "Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency," and he even stated his belief that "God wants everybody to be free." John Kerry, in general more guarded about his Catholic beliefs but becoming more outspoken recently on matters of religion, pointed to his altar-boy past and recounted the "two greatest commandments" he's learned: "Love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, your body and your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself."


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Now, I'm no Scrooge or atheist. The reasons I want Bush and Kerry to keep quiet about their faith are religious in nature. Why? It comes down to this: Today a public confession of faith by a presidential candidate is so deeply enmeshed in the calculating politics of manipulation that it simply should not be believed. Anyone who thinks a modern major-party candidate can talk about faith in a way that is not seen as angling for some political advantage, some movement in the polls, is asking the impossible.

Americans have been subjected to an outpouring of media investigation into both Bush's and Kerry's faith. We've learned that Bush moves in Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist circles; he feels close to Jesus and he prays; he is unafraid to talk in ultimate moral terms of good and evil; and the military struggles he is conducting have the bearing of providence for him. Kerry sometimes attends the Paulist Center in Boston, has a distant Jewish background, has a stance on abortion that might disqualify him from receiving Communion from some bishops and, notably, has not talked as easily as the president about his relationship with God.

It's so common on what is called the religious right to view Bush's statements as authentic insights into his heart that it would seem the Republicans are the sole party of faith-based campaigning. But there have also been calls for more political faith-talk from religious people who don't share the views of the right. Jim Wallis, for example, editor of Sojourners magazine and a tireless leader in progressive Christian activism, has passionately pleaded for the secular left not to prematurely pluck discussion of faith from the vocabulary of Democrats. He has argued that "Democrats are wrong to restrict religion to private space." He wants them to talk about faith openly.

While I agree with Wallis's call for a broader national conversation about religion and politics, I think the Democratic presidential nominee, as well as the Republican, ought to keep religious talk out of the campaign. Voters for whom religious faith makes a difference can have good reason to distrust candidates' talk about their faith. When candidates talk thus they diminish the dignity of faith itself by reducing it to a pious confession of conviction, humility or concern, a mere uttering of earnest words. A thick respect for the mystery of God, for the inability of God to be domesticated to one program or party -- a respect that should be proper to the Christian faith of our presidential candidates -- cannot be honored by such faith-talk in an election season.

Not that faith doesn't tell us something about a candidate: Faith is the deepest part of a person's identity, the name we give to the truest level of our relation to reality. But why do we think that something so deep can be expressed in a few simple words?

During the debate in Tempe, Ariz., Kerry quoted from the Epistle of James: "Faith without works is dead." Why, then, do we see so few attempts, by Democrats and Republicans alike, to make sense of a candidate's faith from his political patterns of behavior, his actual governing record? Or how about attempts to make sense of candidates' faith by looking at what they do with the economic resources at their disposal? This, as Jesus of Nazareth reminds us, would also be a telling index. ("Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.")

Jesus knew that mere talk about faith could be cheap. That's why he sardonically said something that everyone who hears faith-chatter during this campaign season should remember: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." What does it mean to do this will? A little later in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus clarifies: Live generously in relationship to the least among us.

That doesn't mean that anyone has the right to definitively judge the faith of anyone else. But it does mean that encouraging the president and the senator to open up more about God may be unhelpful both politically and theologically.

The writer is an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and the author of "Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy."


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