God and Politics: A look at the 2007 presidential debates
More than half a century later, one Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul, has called President George W. Bush’s foreign policy “un-Christian.” Another Republican candidate, Duncan Hunter, has said that God wants a Republican to be president. The Democrat Bill Richardson would like voters to know that his sense of social justice comes from being a Roman Catholic; and Joe Biden, also a Democrat, thinks that “all the prayer in the world will not stop a hurricane.”
How is it that we know these things? Our faith is fair game in American politics today. Why? Because George W. Bush used his sincerely held religious beliefs to great effect, marshalling many of his fellow Christians to the polls in two elections in which their votes made a significant difference. The religious base of the Republican Party, though not what it once was, cannot be ignored. And Democrats hope to win the moderate to liberal faith vote captured by Bill Clinton but foolishly ignored by John Kerry.
A review of the transcripts of the 2007 Democratic and Republican debates and candidates’ forums can give any voter some idea of what presidential candidates have been saying about faith and politics. Because not everything the candidates have said about faith can be found in these transcripts, and because the same questions about faith were not asked of every candidate at every debate, this review offers a snapshot, not a portrait. But it does afford us a glimpse of what these men and one woman are thinking about faith and politics. And while the questions may no longer surprise us, the answers still might.
God and Republicans
God is no stranger in Republican politics, especially since the 1980s, when the Moral Majority morphed into the Christian Coalition and for a time dramatically changed the tenor of the G.O.P. It is not surprising, then, that faith was mentioned almost immediately in the first Republican presidential debate last spring and in every Republican presidential forum since.
On faith and politics. The Republican candidates spent much time in the 2007 debates walking a fine line between insisting that their faith matters and influences their worldview, and stressing that they will not impose their views on others. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, attempted this balance: “This is a nation, after all,” he said, “that wants a leader that’s a person of faith, but we don’t choose our leader based on which church they go to.” In other words, the president should be a faithful person, but need not follow any particular faith.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee agreed, saying, “I’m not as troubled by a person who has a different faith. I’m troubled by a person who tells me their faith doesn’t influence their decisions.” For Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, it is important that candidates “be open and honest about” their faith; “it helps explain who we are, what our value systems are, what makes us tick.”
But for Governor Huckabee, that openness and honesty had a limit: When pressed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the topic of evolution in another debate, Huckabee suggested his views on the subject were irrelevant: “It’s interesting that that question would even be asked of somebody running for president.” These two responses reveal the rhetorical tightrope candidates walk: they must speak openly about their faith but avoid any specifics that might get them into trouble.
Former New York City Mayor Rudoph W. Giuliani knows this walk well. A Roman Catholic, Giuliani has long endorsed public policies at odds not only with some of his own personal views (the morality of abortion, for example), but with the teachings of his church and a majority of the Republican Party. Accordingly, in another forum, the current national Republican frontrunner sought to draw a sharper line between faith and politics than most of his opponents: “Religion is very important to me,” he said. “But I have been in public office most of my life and taken oaths of office to enforce the law and I’ve got to make the decisions that I think are the right ones in a country like ours.” That he means a secular country is clear from what follows: “I consult my religion, I consult my reading of the Constitution, I consult my views of what I think are important in a pluralistic society.”
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas also consults the Constitution, but it leads him to draw an even sharper line between faith and politics than Giuliani. When asked about his views on church and state, he said that “we should write a lot less laws regarding this matter… and we just don’t need more laws determining religious things or prayer in school.” While Paul acknowledged that he is a Baptist and came “to his God through Christ,” he was attempting to appeal to the libertarian sensibilities of Republicans who want smaller government and less intrusion by the public into the private. It remains to be seen whether the defense-oriented and socially conservative elements of the party are willing to hear that message.
Paul’s fellow Republican, U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, appeared to have it easier than his colleagues, because for him there was no tightrope walk between faith and politics. A Presbyterian, he told a group of voters in one forum that his faith would directly affect public policy when it came to abortion. When it comes to the unborn, he said, “everybody in my cabinet is going to talk about them as people, as individuals, because that is exactly what they are, because God said to Jeremiah, ‘I knew you before you were in the womb….’ We have to understand in this nation that regardless of your political persuasion, all the political talk that goes around it, it goes back to this: God said, ‘I knew you before you were in the womb.’”
On evolution. Huckabee did have a point: it does seem strange that a presidential candidate would be asked in a debate whether he or she believes in evolution. Yet Republican Party politics and the skepticism of the mainstream media converged in one debate to make it seem less strange. A sizable part of the Republican base not only believes in creationism; it believes that evolution is a discredited theory that should not be taught in public schools. Add to this a smug media who probably view creationism as quaint if not crazy, and voilà—we have the question from Wolf Blitzer: “Do you believe in evolution?”
U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, with a reputation as a straight talker, answered with an emphatic yes. Huckabee indicated he did not believe in evolution, but added nuance in a later debate, saying “I believe whether God did it in six days or whether he did it in six days that represented periods of time, he did it, and that’s what’s important.” McCain also then elaborated on his view. When it came to the teaching of evolution, McCain attempted to appease both the skeptical media and the Republican base: “I believe that all of our children in school can be taught different views on different issues. But I leave the curricula up to the school boards.”
America’s most pressing moral issue. At their debate in Manchester, N.H., Republican candidates were asked what they thought was America’s most pressing moral issue and what they would do about it as president. Not surprisingly, almost all agreed that the most pressing moral issue is the threat to human life. But many pro-lifers in recent years have grown sensitive to the criticism that the only issue that concerns them is abortion, and several of the candidates made it clear that they meant something more by “pro-life” than just opposition to legal abortion. “Many of us who are pro-life, quite frankly, have made the mistake of giving people the impression that pro-life means we care intensely about people as long as that child is in the womb,” Huckabee said. “We’ve not demonstrated...that we respect life at all levels, not just during pregnancy.”
In this sense Huckabee, a Baptist, was at least rhetorically in agreement with the U.S. Catholic bishops, who have stressed a broad ethic of life while emphasizing that offenses against the unborn occupy a privileged place. Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic, obviously wanted to give the same answer as Huckabee despite his pro-choice position, and so offered an even more expansive interpretation of the phrase “pro-life.” For the former mayor, the greatest moral challenge facing America is transmitting our values “that come to us from God” to the rest of the world, among these being our belief in human rights. Indeed, according to Giuliani, America has a “moral obligation to find the right way to share that with the rest of the world.”
Ron Paul emphasized yet another thread in the pro-life seamless garment argument, his opposition to unjust war, saying that the greatest threat to human life is “the acceptance just recently that we now promote pre-emptive war.” Paul later amplified this view in another debate: “I believe that there is a Christian doctrine of just war. And I strongly believe this nation has drifted from that.... And I see this as being, in many ways, un-Christian.… What we do in the name of Christianity I think is very dangerous and not part of what Christianity is all about.” It is surprising that a major policy of the current Republican president, the most overtly Christian president since Jimmy Carter, would be characterized as un-Christian at a Republican presidential debate. Equally surprising is that the crowd greeted Paul’s comment with applause and that not one Republican came to the defense of the Bush doctrine on pre-emptive war. It might indicate that Christian Republicans, who like most Americans have grown weary of the war in Iraq, also have a troubled conscience about the justification for it.
An apocalyptic struggle. Since George W. Bush pledged that America would “rid the world of the evildoers” after 9/11, we have grown accustomed to politicians speaking of the struggle against terrorism as a battle between good and evil. It is interesting to note how far this language now goes, especially in Republican politics, where it may be fueled in part by Christian apocalyptic beliefs. Giuliani castigated the Democrats for not drawing the distinction clearly enough, expressing surprise and dismay that no Democrat in their debates ever uttered the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” For John McCain, the “battle against radical Islamic extremism” is “a transcendent struggle between good and evil.” Romney said Americans unite over faith, that it is “the people we’re fighting, they’re the ones who divide over faith.”
Huckabee, however, has used the sharpest language to describe the so-called war on terror, calling it, “a theological war. It’s not politically correct to say that, it’s just the truth. We are fighting people whose religious fanaticism will not be satisfied until every one of us is dead.”
Democrats and Faith
Democratic presidential debates featured little such apocalyptic rhetoric. Barack Obama gave one reason for this, saying “the danger of using good versus evil in the context of war is it may lead us to be not as critical as we should be about our own actions.” But the Democratic forums also had less talk of faith and God in general. In fact, while God was mentioned almost immediately in the first Republican gathering, it was only after 80 minutes of a 90-minute session that the subject was mentioned in the first Democratic debate; Democrats in the following three forums did not mention faith at all. Democrats are not fluent in God-talk, Carter and Clinton notwithstanding. In 2004 they nominated a candidate, John Kerry, who was clearly uncomfortable airing his religious laundry in public. This sat well with a Democratic party that is sometimes uncomfortable with talking about both God and politics in the same breath and contains some members openly hostile to organized religion.
The Democratic candidates nevertheless discussed their religious views in a number of debates and forums. Interestingly, in both political parties, the more seemingly extreme the candidate, the more likely he or she was to speak freely about faith and politics. Among Republicans, this meant the more conservative the candidate, the more talk about God and public policy. For the Democrats, it was the maverick liberal Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio who most frequently referred to his spiritual values.
On faith and politics. Kucinich is the only one among the Democratic presidential candidates who supports reparations for slavery for African-Americans, a position that places him on the far left of Democratic politics. His justification for this, as he said somewhat daringly at the Democratic candidates’ debate in South Carolina, is the biblical injunction to be “a repairer of the breach.” “A breach has occurred” he said. “We have to acknowledge that…. Yes, I am for repairing the breach.” Kucinich, a Roman Catholic who has stated he was influenced in his early life by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, argues that his spiritual values tell him that “we have to have faith but also good works.” In one 30-second response, Kucinich quoted from both Matthew and Isaiah, while in another he claimed that he carried the peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi in his breast pocket to every debate. In a sense, his views are similar to Tancredo’s in that he sees no conflict between his faith and his politics and no need for a tightrope walk. “As president,” he said, “I’ll bring strong spiritual values into the White House.” Highest among these values, according to his debate responses, is love. “Love has the transformative power, and that’s what I’ll bring into the White House,” Kucinich said.
Love is also the highest spiritual value for the first Unitarian to run for president since Adlai Stevenson, the former U.S. Senator from Alaska Mike Gravel. “The most important thing in life is love,” he said, “that’s what empowers courage and courage implements the rest of the virtues.” This message could play well with the liberal wing of the party, for whom talk of love is as admirable and unthreatening as mom and apple pie.
Joe Biden, U.S. Senator from Delaware, attempted to draw a slightly sharper distinction between his faith and politics. “Religion informs my values,” said Biden, a Roman Catholic, but “reason dictates outcomes. My religion taught me about abuse of power.” Biden said that his favorite teacher was the principal of his Norbertine high school: “His name was Justin E. Diny. He was a priest and he taught me that the single most serious sin humanity could commit was abuse of power, and the second most serious sin was standing by and watching it be abused.” Accordingly, said Biden, “that’s why I moved to write the Violence Against Women Act.”
Democratic candidate Barack Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, spent much of last summer conducting “faith tours” of churches in Iowa, and also claimed that his spiritual values inform his decision-making. Obama, perhaps even more than the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, is aiming to capture the votes of religiously minded Democrats, especially African-Americans who gave unstinting support to Hillary’s husband. Accordingly, he was willing to invoke his faith in debate and also challenged what he perceived as a culture in the Democratic Party that looks askance at religion in the public square. “I am proud of my Christian faith,” he said, “and it informs what I do. And I don’t think that people of my faith background should be prohibited from debating in the public square.”
In an impressive act of political triangulation, Obama then reassured nonbelieving Democrats by saying that while public policy positions may originate in personal religious views, those in public life have an obligation to “translate our religious values into moral terms that all people can share, including those who are not believers.” In other words, religious views must be transformed into secular but still moral language that all can speak. In this sense, Obama’s position is not entirely unlike that of Giuliani, who argued for a similar translation.
John Edwards had yet another approach. He spoke frequently of the “moral issues” we confront as a people, telling one audience that poverty is the great moral issue of our time. But Edwards was quick to point out that while God is important to him, and he prays to God every day “for both forgiveness and counsel,” it would be “wrong for me to impose my personal faith beliefs on the American people or to decide any kind of decision, policy decision, that will affect America on the basis of my personal faith beliefs.” This position is similar to Giuliani’s, but rather than using the argument to justify an unpopular position on abortion, as Giuliani did, Edwards invoked the argument to explain that while he was personally opposed to gay marriage, he would still seek to afford gay couples all the rights of marriage through civil unions.
The power of prayer. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (see Fig. 1), Hillary Clinton was viewed as the least religious top-tier candidate, even though her deep religious faith has been well documented. One reason for the discrepancy may be that she has not been given many opportunities to talk about her faith in the presidential debates.
There may be another reason. Clinton seems uncomfortable talking about the subject. In one forum, she told the audience that she would not have gotten through her husband’s infidelity without her faith. But she was not about to elaborate. “I take my faith very seriously and very personally,” she said. “And I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves, so that a lot of the talk about and advertising about faith doesn’t come naturally to me.… I keep thinking of the Pharisees.”
In another forum, Clinton revealed a bit more. The candidates were asked whether they thought prayer had the power to affect events like Hurricane Katrina or last summer’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Clinton’s response, as is customary for a frontrunner, was cautious and noncommittal. “I don’t pretend to understand the wisdom and power of God,” she said, “but I have relied on prayer consistently throughout my life.… I am very dependent on faith, and prayer is a big part of it.”
Christopher Dodd, U.S. Senator from Connecticut, similarly added that “I would not try to second-guess the Lord’s intentions here.” The other Democratic candidates were more direct: Biden and Edwards, while both claimed to be men of prayer, flatly said no—prayer cannot influence events in that way. Both men cited times when they prayed during personal tragedies, Biden when his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash and Edwards when his son also died in an auto accident. Edwards captured their sentiments, saying, “I don’t think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer.”
Once again, Obama took the middle ground. While prayer may not prevent a hurricane, according to Obama, it could help to “strengthen ourselves in adversity… and also find the empathy and compassion and will to deal with the problems that we do control.”
Gravel did not directly answer the question, but offered this insight: “You can pray. I was always struck by the fact that many people who pray are the ones who want to go to war and who want to kill fellow human beings. That disturbs me.” Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, was perhaps least comfortable with the question: “I pray, I’m a Roman Catholic. My sense of social justice, I believe comes from being a Roman Catholic. But in my judgment, prayer is personal.”
The race in the Democratic Party to capture the votes of believers is on—primarily between Obama and Clinton, who in recent weeks has set up her own “faith tours” in South Carolina. From the responses in these debates, it seems that Obama may have the edge. He is comfortable talking about his religious views but can simultaneously reassure worried Democrats that his religious faith is no threat.
The Meaning of “Imposition”
Most surprising is how much the candidates—both Democrats and Republicans—seemed to have in common. Most of them wanted to claim their faith in the public square, to say that it was important and that it influenced their worldviews. Most of them also wanted to stress that their religious views would not be imposed on anyone. This is where their differences are most stark. The candidates have widely varying opinions on what the meaning of “imposing” is. John Edwards, for instance, thinks poverty is a moral issue, yet his call for new programs to reduce poverty is not, in his view, an imposition. But then why is it an imposition for Edwards to allow his views on the morality of same-sex marriage to influence his positions? On the other hand, for most Republicans, defeating same-sex marriage is not imposing a religious view on Americans, but defending a fundamental institution of Western civilization. For most Democrats, denying same-sex couples the rights accrued by marriage is an unreasonable imposition of a religious view.
Maybe not much has changed since Adlai Stevenson ran for president. According to polls, most Americans do not want politicians making public policy decisions based on religious views. On the other hand, Americans are still asking questions about candidates’ views on faith and politics. If there were no market for these questions, the commercial media would probably stop asking them. Perhaps Americans don’t mind the questions; maybe what we really mind are the answers, particularly when we disagree with them.