The Religious Life of a Politician

I hope the following is indeed true.

"Americans equate religious faith with personal morality, but few would use religion as a guide in electing officials." According to a survey, it is true.

First, think about reality. Every week you see newspaper photos or television footage of the President and his wife going into church or coming out of church or talking to the minister after the services they attended.

Not just President Bush, but President Clinton, and all the Presidents that have gone before.

Trust me, they don’t do these photo ops because Americans don’t care about religion. They know Americans do care about religion.

During last fall’s national campaigns, nearly every candidate brought religion into the debates. Joe Lieberman’s Judaism received a lot of attention. Even at the inauguration there were prayers, including one that drew criticism for invoking Jesus as the only Lord and ignoring Americans with other beliefs.

Religious views provided an undercurrent to campaign debates about school prayer, faith-based charities, abortion, school vouchers, the death penalty and even the presidential candidates themselves.

Personally, I don’t think religion and politics go together. I won’t, for example, campaign in front of local churches when the congregants are coming out. I just don’t think it’s politically correct. In fact, I attend church outside of my district, to separate my religious life from my political life. My religious life is part of my private life.

And, I guess I’m not alone. A recent survey shows that Americans are suspicious of political figures who publicly attach too much importance to religion in their public lives.

The survey, by Public Agenda, first of all found that Americans think religion is good.

For example, 87 percent said volunteer and charity work would increase if more Americans were to become deeply religious. Almost the same number said parents would do a better job of raising children, 79 percent said crime would decrease, and 69 percent said materialism and greed would decrease.

And, only 25 percent thought that morality and family values could be improved without religion.

So, back to the theme, religion is good.

How, then, can we look at our immediate past president and his wife, without calling them thieves for all the trinkets, large and small, they purloined from the White House. Yet, every Sunday, they visibly declared their faith in God. And, after the fling with the intern, he sought religious counseling. From, of all people, Jesse Jackson, who just admitted having a child with someone other than his wife.

What happened to "thou shall not steal" or "thou shall not commit adultery?"

I know I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to cast the stones. I know, God forgive me, that’s another Biblical reference. But I just had to say it.

Back to religion is good, and Americans want more of it, which the survey found. What does that mean for politicians?

According to the survey, many Americans would like their political leaders to be more religious as individuals because they believe it speaks to their character.

But most don't consider a candidate's religious affiliation when voting. In fact, 58 percent say it would be wrong to do so. What's more, they are suspicious of politicians who wear their religion on their sleeve.

The survey found that on volatile issues like gay rights, abortion and the death penalty, even a devout politician may need to make pragmatic compromises. Whatever the issue, Americans expect their political leaders to negotiate with those who believe differently.

A side note. Evangelical Christians are much more likely to believe devout politicians would craft better policies and to believe religious elected officials should be less willing to compromise on key issues.

School prayer? Most of those surveyed would prefer a moment of silence, to accommodate diversity.

Basically, most Americans believe that religion helps individuals become better human beings. Consequently, many also believe that religion might help elected officials become more honorable and ethical decision makers.

Today, current history, we’re discussing public funding of religious groups who offer programs, for example, for the homeless or drug addicts. Some 44 percent of those polled support the funding, with another 23 percent on board if the religious groups stay away from religious messages. (I worked hard, for example, to place nurses in our parochial schools.)

Finally, a piece of trivia from the poll that I enjoyed. Although you see the country’s leaders going to church, two-thirds of those polled (66 percent) didn’t know that President Bush is a Methodist or that former Vice President Al Gore is a Baptist.

Bottom line…we need more politicians with honesty and integrity, not more politicians who are religious. But if more were religious, they might be more honest and have some integrity.

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