Pray For Politicians

Religious Beliefs Play a Political Role, Like It or Not

Lyndon Johnson was an inveterate churchgoer. Raised a Baptist, he became an elder at the Disciples of Christ church in Johnson City. Yet, as an adult, he often attended Catholic masses in order to be with his daughter Luci, and then later that same morning, he would go to Episcopal services with his daughter Lynda. Ronnie Dugger, who profiled LBJ in his book, "The Politician" says the former president was "an ecumenical movement all by himself. His family was Christian unity realized."

Whether LBJ's devotion arose from a deep seated religious belief or a more practical understanding of political necessity, will never be known. But Johnson's church-going practices offer an insight into something that all politicians understand: you can't be a politician in America without paying homage to religion.

America may have been founded as a secular state, but politics and religion have had an uneasy relationship in this country for more than 300 years. The ongoing squabbles among the believers of colonial times led Benjamin Franklin to write in Poor Richard's Almanac that "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."

Richard Nixon (a Quaker), provided some of the clearest thinking about politicians and religion. During his 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy, Protestants and Republicans were raising questions about Kennedy's Catholicism. They asked if Kennedy would obey the Pope's edicts if he won the presidency. When asked if faith should play a role in the campaign, Nixon replied, "religion could be an issue if that candidate had no religion whatever."

And yet, Americans don't want their politicians to be too religious. In a recent radio interview, former president Jimmy Carter, arguably the most devout president in recent times, recalled the 1976 campaign during which his faith (Carter is a born-again Christian) became an issue. Discussing his controversial interview with Playboy magazine, in which he admitted that he had lusted after other women, Carter said, "I quoted part of the Sermon on the Mount, and it almost cost me the election."

It was during Carter's presidency that the Religious Right came to prominence in America. And despite his strong beliefs, Carter has made clear that he disagrees with the direction now being taken by the conservative Christians, who he said have created "litmus tests" for candidates. "There is a blatant condemnation of any candidate who espouses any support for abortion or who condones equal rights for homosexuals," Carter said.

Carter was succeeded by Ronald Reagan, who, perhaps more than any other politician, helped propel conservative Christian doctrine to the forefront of American politics. Reagan encouraged Jerry Falwell and the other leaders of the Christian right to get involved in politics. And yet, the man who referred to the Soviet Union as the "Great Satan" seldom went to church.

By contrast, President Bill Clinton, a Baptist, can regularly be seen on television attending services in Washington, Bible in hand. And yet, unlike Reagan, Clinton is not looked at as a president with strong religious ties. Perhaps that is due to the fact that the GOP is now so closely allied to religious conservatives. Bob Dole's hopes for the White House rested in large part on his ability to garner the votes of the conservative Christian Coalition. Therefore, he had no choice but to appear at the coalition's gathering in September and be photographed arm in arm with television talk show host -- and former presidential candidate -- Pat Robertson. It was the conservative religious leaders who forced the GOP to include an anti-abortion plank in the party's platform. The presence of the abortion language immediately became a problem for Dole, who tried to distance himself from the plank without alienating the Christian conservatives.

Religion stymied the Texas GOP confab in June at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Conservative Christian delegates tried to block US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison from being a delegate at the party's national convention because of her moderate stance on abortion. Perhaps it is inevitable that politics and religion are constantly parrying. Whether the locale is Baltimore -- where vanishing atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair fought school prayer -- Beirut or Bosnia, wars are continually being waged for ideological dominance. But unlike Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the other theocracies that are now operating around the world, American politicians must respect the first 16 words of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Those words assure that America will remain, at least in theory, a secular society. But American politics is clearly dominated by Christianity. Our coins and bills still have the inscription "In God we Trust." Our presidents, when sworn into office, place their hands on a Bible. The Texas House and Senate both begin their daily proceedings with a prayer. On the campaign trail, repeating the phrase "God Bless America" is second only to baby-smooching as a method of giving voters that warm fuzzy feeling.

Despite these outward devotions, when politicos are asked specific questions about their religiosity, few of them think it important enough to respond. This fall, the Chronicle faxed a set of 11 questions to 16 politicians, ranging from the governor to city council. Each politician was called just before the deadline to remind them of the questionnaire, which asked questions such as. "How often do you attend church?" and "Does religion play a positive role in politics?" By the end of the deadline -- two weeks -- only four politicians had responded. Three of the four -- Councilmember Gus Garcia, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm -- responded only to say they would not discuss the matter.

"I do not discuss my religious preferences or spiritual habits publicly," said Garcia, who has said in public that he is a Catholic.

State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos similarly refused to discuss his religious practices. "I believe in God; I am Catholic; and I attend church. Religion, to me, is a personal and private matter, and I have held this belief throughout my life."

U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm: Larry Neal, Gramm's press secretary, responded with a fax which said, "While I can appreciate your curiosity, the depth and breadth of Sen. Gramm's faith in God is an intensely personal matter and, thus, an inappropriate topic for a political discussion." The Almanac on American Politics says that Gramm is an Episcopalian.

Comptroller John Sharp was the quickest to respond and the only one to answer every question. (He was also the only one to use e-mail). A former Protestant, he converted to Catholicism as an adult. Sharp attends St. Mary's Church, he said he prays on a regular basis, and he believes that religion plays a positive role in politics. He admires Pope John Paul II "because he says what he believes whether it's popular or not, and the Rev. Billy Graham, for the same reason."

Rep. Elliott Naishtat: said via telephone that he didn't have time to respond to the questionnaire.

Rep. Glen Maxey: did not respond.

Rep. Sherri Greenberg: did not respond.

Gov. George W. Bush: did not respond.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes: asked for (and received) additional copy of questions. Did not respond.

Councilmember Jackie Goodman: asked for (and received) additional copy of questions. Did not respond.

Councilmember Eric Mitchell: did not respond.

Councilmember Ronney Reynolds: did not respond.

Mayor Bruce Todd: did not respond.

Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry: did not respond.

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