At long last, we seem to be blessed with a presidential candidate who has enough integrity not to use religion for political purposes.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley and his wife, Ernestine, are taking on a huge and important challenge: They are trying to maintain a zone of privacy that has put questions about religion completely out of bounds. Don't ask where they go to church or even whether they do.
President Reagan used religion to win the support of the evangelical right, but he and Nancy Reagan were not regular churchgoers, tending to take counsel from swamis and astrologers instead. With transparent cynicism, President Clinton used religion when his moral compass went awry, summoning ministers with huge followings to the White House to lead him to the path of redemption. Sunday photo-ops of him and Hillary Rodham Clinton leaving church became symbols of spousal loyalty and forgiveness, but whether intentionally or unintentionally on their part, religion also became a stage prop. President Jimmy Carter was a born-again Christian long before that religious persuasion had real political clout. He also didn't make a big deal of it. George W., the Republican front-runner, went from party boy to born-again in a religious conversion that he is willing to discuss with all comers.
Bush would do well to heed the warnings of his favorite philosopher in the matter of public piety. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples against those who turn prayer into public performance: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men; for, verily, I say unto you, They have their reward.
"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."
Bradley told an audience in New Hampshire last month that his "personal faith is private, and I will not discuss it with the public." He also said that he felt it was up to each candidate to handle the matter in any way the candidate chose and that he would respect that choice.
According to a story in Sunday's Washington Post by staff writer Mike Allen, Bradley is attempting to draw the widest zone of personal privacy of any candidate in recent memory, refusing to answer questions about favorite books, movies, television programs, who has had the greatest influence on his political thinking, as well as the names of his foremost economic, education and foreign policy advisers.
That's stretching the privacy zone. I suspect he doesn't have a lot of time for watching television or going to the movies these days, so I'm not much interested in his cultural tastes. I also don't think that someone who has done much sophisticated political thinking has been subjected to any single great influence, so those questions are silly. But I do believe that voters are entitled to know who his top advisers are in such critical areas as the economy, education and foreign policy. In all three areas, there exists in this country varied schools of thought that could ascend to great power should Bradley win the presidency. Supply-side economics was nothing more than a mantra in conservative intellectual circles until Reagan became president and his supply side advisers went from academic obscurity to national prominence and influence. Madeleine K. Albright, now the secretary of state, was a prominent adviser in the first Clinton campaign, so much so that women's organizations hoped she would be named the first female secretary of state at the outset.
A presidential candidate's key advisers tell us a lot about where he intends to take the country over the four years of a presidency. They also tell us a lot about his judgment. Vice President Gore, with the indefatigable self-promoter Naomi Wolf on his team, looked like a fool. He looked double the fool because he was overpaying her. If Bradley had a similar Energizer bunny advising him, that would speak volumes about his judgment. Are the candidates surrounding themselves with foreign policy, education and economic experts who trade in flamboyance or ones who trade in ideas that could better humankind?
Has the candidate surrounded himself with people of integrity or with people who will stop at nothing to win? I'd like to know that, too, for I still cling to the belief that it is possible to run a campaign with class, to win with class, and to govern with class.
Bradley, according to The Post story, has been repeatedly signaling in New Hampshire that he intends to depersonalize the presidency. This, coming on the heels of a president who was stripped of all privacy, not only would be refreshing, but it also would help return dignity to the office that is central to our democracy. Bradley is right to assert that faith is a private matter and that he is going to keep his private. Most of us feel that faith is private and have been deeply put off by the inquisition-like tactics of the far right with its quasi-religious litmus tests for judges and other public appointments.
The Iowa Democratic chairman, Robert G. Tully, was quoted in The Post story as warning that Bradley can expect to have his privacy zone challenged in the weeks leading up to the Iowa primary. "Iowans are very probing," he said.
Perhaps. But they ought to remember this admonition from President Ulysses S. Grant: "Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the State forever separate." Grant said that in a speech in Des Moines in 1875, and it's as important a line to draw today--and to respect--as it was then.