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Politics of Faith

Americans are a nation of believers - over 60 % say religion is very important in their lives. By comparison, only 17 % of people in the United Kingdom and 28 % of Canadians make a similar statement. What is more, religious values seem to influence the way Americans vote. Conservative Christians claim Americans are unhappy about sexual permissiveness, abortion, gay rights and what they call "militant secularism" of liberal elites. But John Podesta, president of a Washington think-tank, the Center for American Progress, said at the Brookings Institution that other polls show many Americans have quite different moral priorities.

Mr. Podesta says, "42 % told us that the war in Iraq was the most important moral issue facing the country and influencing the vote. When asked to identify the most urgent moral problems facing the country today, 64 % of the voters chose either greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice."

Another participant at the Brookings Institution panel, Jim Wallis, is an evangelical Christian and social activist. He recently published a book "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it." He says the American right used issues like abortion, gay rights, and family values to convince many Americans to vote Republican despite the fact that this party, in his view, does not represent the economic interests of working people. But Mr. Wallis believes Republican gains will be short-lived. People will realize that religion has something to say also about poverty, war, human rights and the protection of the environment.

Wallis says, "I often ask how did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American? It sometimes feels to this evangelical that our faith has been stolen and it's time to take it back. We need sometimes a rescue operation."

Jim Wallis says Republicans like the language of faith, but use it narrowly and selectively. Democrats, on the other hand, are clearly uncomfortable with the subject.

"Democrats need to recover a moral vocabulary, to put principles ahead of programs," contends Mr. Wallis. "Don't start with policies. Start with values and then say how your policies flow from them."

Bryan Hehir is a Catholic priest and professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He agrees with Jim Wallis that religion has always galvanized the American public in support of various political issues. But he says the language of common moral values works better in public debate than the language of religious certainty.

Mr. Hehir says, "Many people do draw their moral values from religious traditions, but it is also true that many people with very powerful moral insights have no religious convictions or affiliations whatsoever."

Father Hehir says everybody believers and nonbelievers should be able to participate in moral debates on equal footing.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention agrees that one's religious belief is not enough to make a valid public argument. But he said at the Brookings Institution that the so-called religious right has won the debate with those who, in his words, wanted to "censor religion from the public debate."

"And when I say that we won the debate with the secular fundamentalists, I point to the 2004 elections as sort of final test of that," says Mr. Land. "The American people have decided that they want religious values to be part of public policy. Does that mean they're always going to come down on the conservative side? No. Does it mean they're always going to come down on the moderate side? No. Does it mean they're always going to come down on the liberal side? No. But they have rejected, at a national level, this idea that some perverted understanding of separation of church and state means that we are to drive religious conviction and belief to the margins of the culture."

Most analysts agree that America is something of an exception among developed, modern nations. Religion is not in decline here, as in most other western countries. In the last decades it seems, if anything, to be growing. Analysts say no party should try to politicize God and co-opt religion. But they point out politicians must bear in mind the American religious tradition if they want to win the trust of the people.