Impeachment Raises Questions of Faith
By Bill Broadway
Evangelical Christians increasingly make up a large block in the Republican Party, said James L. Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. And evangelicals, who tend to be more politically conservative, no longer can be identified only with such traditional evangelical denominations as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Church of the Nazarene, he said. They are just as apt to be Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Guth's findings are based on comparisons of surveys of Congress members in the 1980s with more current information he collected from interviews and from the Web sites of members of Congress.
In the Dec. 19 impeachment roll call, in which Republicans cast most of the yes votes, most of the GOP members also were evangelical Christians or other conservative Protestants, said John C. Green, a professor at the University of Akron and director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. He and Guth are part of a research team that studies the interplay of religion and politics.
House members who identified themselves as "Christian" in Congressional Quarterly profiles voted 11 to 3 for impeachment. At least seven representatives in that category are members of nondenominational evangelical congregations, Guth said.
Sixty percent of Roman Catholic members, on the other hand, voted against the articles of impeachment (49 to 72), while a majority of Baptists--a designation that includes the conservative Southern Baptists and the more liberal American and predominantly black National and Progressive denominations--also voted no on all four articles.
Jewish members overwhelmingly opposed impeachment. Of the 24 Jews in the House, only two, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) and outgoing Rep. Jon D. Fox (R-Pa.), voted for the articles.
Guth said it is difficult to predict, based on religious criteria, how the Senate might vote on Clinton's censure or removal from office. But he noted that evangelicalism "is not as widely distributed" in the Senate as in the House, where the percentage of evangelicals is approaching one-fourth, about the same as the general population.
Green said a Senate vote might depend on "how many Democrats from Protestant backgrounds will be persuaded to be critical of the president."
In the House, religion was never an obvious factor in the impeachment debate. But it had a definite correlation with the outcome, Green said.
"Whatever religion is doing, it's being filtered through very, very intense partisanship," he said. "We see little direct effect on the impeachment vote, but a strong indirect effect, depending on party affiliation."
One of the most noticeable changes in recent years is a shift of Southern evangelicals--including Baptists and Pentecostals--from the Democratic to the Republican Party, Green said.
In addition, increasingly intense and personal theological disputes over such issues as abortion and gay rights have created rifts in the once-unified mainline denominations, he said. Protestant politicians with more liberal social and ethical agendas run on the Democratic ticket, while conservatives run as Republicans--often with the support of the Christian Coalition and other Christian watchdog groups.
Not all representatives toed the party line in the impeachment vote. Four Republicans voted no on all four articles: Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.) and Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.), both Catholics; Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), a Christian Scientist; and Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.), an Episcopalian.
One Democrat, Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), a Catholic, voted yes on all four articles.
King and Shays said in interviews that they based their decision against impeachment on legal issues--that the president's actions were not impeachable offenses as defined in the Constitution. But each also said religious faith supported his decision.
"One thing I carry with me is the concept of original sin," said King, 58, who described himself as a "prototypical 1950s New York Irish Catholic kid" who attended Catholic schools from elementary grades to law school at Notre Dame.
"None of us is perfect, and we should be careful before pointing the finger at someone else," he said. "And because a person has a failing, you don't demonize them. I do feel people, in part, have demonized President Clinton. Very few people in politics are in a position where they can demonize someone else."
King, who attends Mass regularly and considers himself a conservative Catholic, said he also distinguishes between "sins of weakness and sins of malice, where one is vindictive and out to hurt someone." The president is guilty of weakness, King said, but "I never saw him as an evil person."
Shays, 53, believes that Clinton "is not an honest and ethical man, which is a big deal in my faith." But the impeachment vote was not a matter of "imposing my religious view," he said. "The only way my religion came into play was if my motives were right and I could live with the results. . . . My faith [also] helped me have a high tolerance of strongly expressed views."
During the week of the impeachment vote, Shays said he started each day reading the Bible--the King James Version--and praying. He studied no particular scriptural passages but looked for spiritual strength to vote as his conscience and duty led him.
"The bottom line for me was not [asking for guidance on] how to vote but how to conduct myself and how to try to seek the truth as I saw it," he said. "I realized how important an issue it was and gained strength without [the decision] being debilitating."
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), a Southern Baptist minister, did follow the party line by voting to impeach the president. But he broke with the 30 or so other African American Protestants--all Democrats--in doing so.
Watts, 41, said he based his decision on "the evidence and facts" and believes that Clinton should be tried in the Senate and dismissed from office.
"You can be forgiven for your wrongs in a spiritual sense, and you can be forgiven for wrongs in a constitutional sense. But that doesn't mean you don't have to be accountable for your actions," he said.
In the end, Watts said, the issue was constitutional, not religious. But in "what I hope was a very difficult decision for anyone who had to cast that vote," he added, "one could draw on one's faith and religious background to help them navigate it."
For Watts, that meant "praying for God to give me wisdom and discernment. I didn't want to cast my vote with a vindictive heart." At the same time, he felt obligated to uphold a "high scriptural standard" that would be a guideline for the country, especially its children.
"We don't have any special avenue to heaven," Watts said of the growing evangelical movement. Yet it does have certain standards of morality and belief that make it difficult to separate from one's work, politics or family life.
"If your faith is interwoven into your daily life as scripture encouraged," he said, "I don't know how anyone can put it on or take it off."
Staff researchers Margot Williams, Heming Nelson, Richard Drezen and Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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