Kerry's dubious approach to religion.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
June 29 2004 11:47 AM

Pilgrim's Progress?

John Kerry's dubious approach to religion.

No John F. Kennedy
No John F. Kennedy

As you may already know, one of America's two political parties is extremely religious. Sixty-one percent of this party's voters say they pray daily or more often. An astounding 92 percent of them believe in life after death. And there's a hard-core subgroup in this party of super-religious Christian zealots. Very conservative on gay marriage, half of the members of this subgroup believe Bush uses too little religious rhetoric, and 51 percent of them believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that its existence fulfills the prophecy about the second coming of Jesus.

Liberals could read these statistics and sneer about "those silly Republicans" were it not for the fact that it's the Democrats who hold these beliefs. And the abovementioned ultrareligious subgroup is not the so-called "Religious Right" but rather the so-called "African-Americans." 

Advertisement

If you're surprised it's probably because we've been hearing a lot about the religion differences between the parties. Republicans are the party of the faithful and Democrats the party of secularists, goes the C.W. There is, according to Time magazine, a "Religion Gap." That's not exactly right, however. What exists is a church-attendance gap, not a religion gap or a "God gulf."

More Republicans do indeed go to church regularly, and the most secular folks are more likely to be Democrats. Both tendencies have, in fact, become more pronounced in recent years. But in general, most Republicans and most Democrats are pretty religious. The stark differences are at the extremes of each party, and, as so often is the case, the big question is whether the extremes will define the party as a whole. Most Republicans aren't conservative fundamentalists, although it sometimes seems that way given the proclivities of the leadership. And the Democrats have their own version of that same dilemma, and it's affecting the most important arena there is—this year's presidential race: Will Kerry's Democrats act like the Party of Secularists even if they aren't?

So far Kerry's campaign seems to be adopting this bewildering approach. Because of attacks from conservative Catholics, they are now shying away from discussing his conflict with the church. "The mood now is to shut up about it," Father Robert Drinan, the former congressman from Massachusetts who advises Kerry, told the Washington Times. And that fear apparently has spread to discussion of religion in general. As one Kerry aide told the Times, "Every time something with religious language got sent up the flagpole, it got sent back down, stripped of religious language."

Why? Perhaps they've come to believe the misleading punditry about the religion gap. Well, heck, they may figure, if there aren't any religious people in our party, no need to talk about that stuff.

More likely, the Kerry campaign suffers from the fact that while most Democrats are religious, many liberal Democratic activists are not. Perhaps the real problem with the paucity of African-Americans at senior levels of the Kerry campaign is not that he doesn't understand racial language but that—forgive the gross stereotyping—the white aides tend to be more tone deaf about religion than the black ones.

It may also be that Kerry is suffering from over-identification with John F. Kennedy. He seems to have decided that the best way to deal with religion in this campaign is the same way Kennedy (the last Catholic Democratic contender) did. JFK1 emphasized the separation of church and state and so, therefore, should Kerry.

If that's the case, Kerry is learning the wrong lessons from that campaign. His and Kennedy's dilemmas were utterly different, requiring different solutions. Kennedy's problem was Protestants. Kerry's is Catholics. Kennedy had to prove that that he wasn't under the thumb of the Vatican in order to mollify anxious Protestants. Emphasizing secularism made sense as a way of distancing himself from the church. Thanks to ethnic pride, he could do this without risking losing the Catholic vote (in fact, he won it by a staggering 50 points).

Kerry's problems flow from within the Catholic world. Conservative Catholics, lay and official, have launched stinging attacks on him for being an iffy Catholic because of his pro-choice stance. Meanwhile, the Catholic vote is up for grabs, with the Bush campaign making intense efforts to woo it. If Kerry doesn't define himself as a sterling Catholic, he will be labeled by his critics a bad one.

If Kerry's strategy is to make people disassociate him with religion, then it's working nicely. That Time magazine poll said only 7 percent of voters view him as a man of strong religious faith.

What difference does it make if a candidate is viewed as a person of faith? I don't think the key is the purity or coherence of his religious practice. New York Times columnist David Brooks (who's still my favorite conservative) nailed it precisely when he said of his fellow countrymen, "Their President doesn't have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God."

This is true for three reasons, none of which have to do with God. First, if Kerry's uncomfortable with religion then he's uncomfortable with Americans. Media managers love having him photographed riding a motorcycle because it shows he can connect with regular folks, who apparently all ride motorcycles, too. If Kerry's really secular, he's abnormal.

Second, the fact that people view Bush as a man of faith is very much connected to their viewing him as decisive and steadfast, two of his strongest assets. A man of faith is a man of conviction, and vice versa. So, Kerry's unwillingness to talk about his faith feeds into one of his great weaknesses, his reputation as a waffler.

Finally, he needs to talk about his faith because it would strengthen him on the most important issue of the campaign—terrorism. Let's face it: It really doesn't matter if a president has strong inner spiritual reserves if the focus of his presidency is changing the capital-gains rate.

But when the country is at war, people appropriately look for signs that the president has real strength. Americans believe that one of the most important sources of inner strength is faith. During the darkest hours of the country, when the president is wandering the halls alone, will he find himself talking to God or to the oil paintings of past presidents? Putting aside the question of whether, in either case, someone is talking back, voters are going to be more comfortable with the commander in chief who has serious resources, and I don't mean financial ones.

Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.