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Meshing of Religion With Politics Refreshing for Some Americans, Concern for Others - 2003-04-05

Much has been made lately of the religious imagery President George W. Bush regularly uses in his speeches. The head of the president's speechwriting team, Michael Gerson, is an evangelical Christian. That's no coincidence. Mr. Bush has been very forthright about his own Christian faith and the guiding role it plays in his administrative and policy decisions. For some Americans, the unabashed integration of religion and politics has been refreshing. For others, it's proving to be a source of concern.

Sometimes, the religious tones of President Bush's speeches have been overt, as in the case of an address he delivered on the day the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded in the skies over Texas. "The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," he said. "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home."

Other times, the influence Mr. Bush's religious background has on his speeches has been subtle. In his most recent State of the Union address, for example, the president used words familiar to the evangelical Christian community, but unknown to most everyone else. "For so many in our country, the homeless and the fatherless, the addicted, the need is great. Yet there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people," he said.

"There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb" is a line from a hymn written in 1899 by a Midwestern evangelist named Lewis Jones. George W. Bush isn't the first president to emphasize religion when speaking to the American public. That title actually belongs to the first U.S. president, George Washington, who told the American people when he left office in 1796 that "of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."

But some people have come to believe that the partnership between religion and politics that animates American culture today is different from the partnership George Washington spoke of to the detriment of both faith and statesmanship.

"Political leaders in this nation have learned that attaching religious rhetoric to political initiatives gains great support," says C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, a national organization representing more than fifty faith traditions. Reverend Gaddy says the problem with the current partnership between religion and politics is that it has made the latter a litmus test for the former. "There are now some people in this nation who evaluate the authenticity of one's religious experience by the political votes that a person casts," he says. "That destroys the distinctive nature of religion, the integrity of faith, and confuses the issue between religion and politics."

Reverend Gaddy says there are several political issues where this trend is apparent and they aren't just the logical ones like abortion and capital punishment. Welton Gaddy says welfare affirmative, action education reform, and most recently the war in Iraq, have all been couched in the language of faith.

But that's because the political leaders dealing with these issues are, themselves, people of faith according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "I was fourteen when John F. Kennedy came to Houston, Texas, in 1960 and assured the Baptist ministers in my hometown that he would not let his Catholicism interfere with his performance of his office," he says. "I think that was a shameful thing for Americans to ask John F. Kennedy to do, to somehow say, "I promise to keep my religious conviction separate and apart from my performance of my office."

Richard Land says some of the most revolutionary and necessary legal and cultural reforms in American history were accomplished because they were perceived to be matters of faith. I'm glad that Dr. King mixed religion and politics. Every major social evil in our country's history that has been corrected has been corrected because people of profound religious faith brought their religious convictions into the public arena and said 'we believe this is immoral. We believe this is wrong. And we believe this policy should be changed.' This was true of the abolitionists. It was true of the labor reform movement. It was true of the civil rights movement," he says.

But the kind of partnership between religion and politics cultivated in the 1960s by Reverend Martin Luther King isn't what's happening today, according to Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance. Reverend Gaddy says during the civil rights movement, faith influenced politics, not the other way around. He says nowadays, religion isn't being linked to moral imperatives, but to the political platforms of the Republican and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic parties. And that has turned faith into little more than a rhetorical tool. "I am far from being one who wants religion out of politics. I want religion in politics. But we have to talk with each other out of the core values of our religious traditions, and let those values impact our politics and our political rhetoric, rather than letting our political rhetoric influence our religious conversations," he says.

Welton Gaddy says membership in a particular religious denomination should be separate and distinct from membership in a political party. And he worries that the line between the two has become increasingly fuzzy, particularly for evangelical Christians, who Mr. Gaddy says, have embraced the Republican party platform as a tenet of faith.

But Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention insists that's because many of the elements of both parties' platforms are matters of faith and that the line Welton Gaddy says has become fuzzy never really existed at all.