JANUARY 8, 2004
God, Politics, and the Democrats
There has been interest, recently, in the religious faith of the current crop of Democrats running for the presidential nomination. Howard Dean, the frontrunner, was interviewed on "Hardball" on MSNBC, by Chris Matthews and asked about his faith. Dean cited philosopher Lao Tzu: "my favorite saying is, 'The longest journey begins with a single step.'" Elsewhere Dean has said that he prays and reads the Bible regularly but isn't a regular churchgoer. He became a Congregationalist "because I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church about twenty-five years ago over a bike path." Dean has also said of his faith, "I don't think it informs my politics." When asked why he didn't fight for gay marriage instead of civil unions when he was governor of Vermont, Dean replied, "Because marriage is very important to a lot of people who are pretty religious."
The Washington Post Weekly, in "Keeping the Faith-Quietly" (December 8-14, 2003), reports: "The trick for Democrats, Dean says, is to push the debate beyond abortion and gay issues, which he believes are the two biggest issues dividing Democrats from many Evangelicals and Catholics. 'The Bible isn't fixated on homosexuality. We shouldn't be either, ' says Dean, who says he has read the Bible from cover to cover."
Sen. John Edwards is a Baptist turned Methodist who is in a Bible study with his colleagues in the U.S. Senate. He rediscovered his faith, after his son died in a car accident seven years ago. Edwards has co-chaired the national prayer day breakfast, an inter-faith event that occurs in Washington, D.C. According to the Washington Post article, "he talks about his faith only when asked and is 'very, very careful' not to allow his faith to guide his policies." Edwards says, "Most people in this country do not want you to beating them over the their heads with your religious views."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman disagrees. He argues that Democrats "have been very hesitant to talk about faith ... and in doing so we have lost a connection with a lot of people." Lieberman is very open about expressing his faith. He is an Orthodox Jew who does not campaign on the Sabbath. A Pew Research Center study backs him up. According to their report, 41 percent asked said "There has been too little reference to religious faith and prayer by politicians," 21 percent said "There has been too much." That figure might surprise some of the Democratic candidates. The Democratic Leadership Council, which backed President Clinton in his bids for the White House, recently said that President Bush is an example to follow for Democrats in articulating religious faith and attracting voters.
There have been presidents who haven't been regular churchgoers. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was not a member of any denomination. But he knew how to effectively express his religious faith in an open way to the people. Indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr called him America's greatest theologian. The current group of Democratic Presidential candidates may have something to learn from Lincoln's example.
And while referring to Lao Tzu as your favorite philosopher is not exactly a Lincolnian approach to the issue of politics, God, and religion, openness will be called for in this campaign season. Stay tuned.
Rev. Eric Haugan is pastor of the Faith United Church, Winthrop, MN.