Kerry Keeps His Faith in Reserve
Candidate Usually Talks About Religion Before Black Audiences Only
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page A01
John F. Kerry, a lifelong Roman Catholic, carries in his briefcase an unmarked manila folder stuffed full of religion articles, scriptures, personal reflections -- and a sermon the Democrat has been fine-tuning since the early 1980s.
In the latest iteration Kerry borrows the words of James, reputed brother of Jesus, to condemn President Bush's leadership. "It is not enough, my brother, to say that you have faith, when there are no deeds," Kerry told thousands of African American Christians gathered in Indianapolis earlier this month for the annual convention of the AME Church. "We look at what's happening in America today, and if you have a conscience and if your eyes are open, you have to say, 'Where are the deeds?' For the last four years, all we have heard is empty words."
The speech, based in part on James's New Testament teachings on Christian social responsibility of nearly 2,000 years ago, was revealing, overtly religious in tone -- and one of the rare times Kerry has expounded at any length about his views on faith during this campaign.
Outside of black churches or meetings with African Americans such as those at the NAACP convention yesterday, Kerry has been largely silent about the personal Catholicism that once inspired a flirtation with the priesthood and the Christian beliefs friends and family say guide his life and political thinking.
Kerry has on occasion touched on the complications of running as the first Catholic since John F. Kennedy in 1960 to win the party's nomination. While Kennedy found himself vowing that he would not be controlled by the pope, Kerry has had to explain his differences with the church on the issues of abortion and gay rights.
"There are many things that are of concern and taught by the church with respect to war, with respect to the environment, with respect to poor people, our responsibilities to each other, and I am very comfortable with where I am with respect to those," Kerry told reporters one month ago in Kentucky. "But I am not a spokesperson for the church, and the church is not a spokesperson for the United States of America."
Kerry's reticence on his faith offers a stark contrast to President Bush, who openly talks about being a born-again Christian, and could prove troublesome for the Democratic nominee in the front-and-center political fight over values, according to several Democrats and political analysts.
In a nation in which most Americans consider themselves religious and many say they desire a candidate of faith, a recent Time magazine poll found that only 7 percent of voters described Kerry as a "man of strong religious faith." Numerous other polls, including ones conducted by Kerry allies, show Americans who attend church regularly are flocking to the president as they did in 2000.
"If you listen to Bush and Kerry talk, you would be excused for thinking Bush is an incredibly religious man and Kerry is not [religious] at all," said Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and one of a growing number of Democrats pressuring party leaders to talk more about religious faith. If Kerry confines his sermon to black churches, "that's a huge problem," she added.
Writing in a recent issue of Democratic Leadership Council's official publication, the Blueprint, Sullivan said speaking about faith to minorities alone is "not only a condescending strategy, but a foolish one."
John D. Podesta, a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who started an organization to prod party leaders into the religion debate, said in a recent interview: "Part of the Republican attacks will be . . . that he's at some level anti-religious. A critical element for Kerry is to repel those attacks. They have to put him in settings where that deep sense of religious-based morality can shine through."
Kerry has rebuffed pressure from Democrats inside and outside his campaign to talk more openly about religion, aides say, other than making the word "faith" part of the values message he is offering to voters on the campaign trail. He has turned down numerous interview requests on the topic, including several for this article. Aides said Kerry's resistance to talking about faith and personal beliefs is a relatively common trait among Catholic and Protestant politicians reared in the reserved New England tradition.
"I grew up in the same background as a Roman Catholic in New England, and we all have a tradition . . . where faith is practiced inside your religion and it's more of a private matter," said Tad Devine, a top Kerry strategist.
With the Catholic vote up for grabs, Kerry is also not interested in picking a public fight with bishops and other Catholics in key states such as Missouri by belaboring their differences over church doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church is opposed to abortion and any sexual activity outside marriage, and a few bishops want to deny the sacrament of Holy Communion to Kerry and other politicians who cross the church on these controversial social issues.
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