Candidates’ declarations of faith fail to impress panel
SAN FRANCISCO — Presidential candidates may be professing their
religious faith but they have not impressed the panelists who discussed
“Religion and Politics 2000″ last night at the Pacific Coast Center.
Both sides are invoking religious language to advance “temporal,
political issues and agendas,” said nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas.
“The danger is that when politicians get involved in (the need for spiritual
renewal), it is religion, not politics, that is demeaned and diminished.
“We’ve talked about how it is impossible to have trickle-down morality
from Washington because the politicians haven’t got it right in their own
lives,” he said. “If they can’t impose a moral code on themselves, how likely
is it that they can impose one on the nation?
“Politicians are spiritual shoplifters. They will steal the goodies
wherever they can without paying the price themselves.”
Ed Dobson, a Michigan pastor, who is co-author with Thomas of
Blinded by Might, said that the
invoking of faith by both sides “deepens my cynicism about the political
Jim Wallis, co-founder of the Sojourners community in Washington,
D.C., and author of The Soul of
Politics and Faith
Works, said the truly significant development is being lost
behind loud but vague proclamations of faith. The development is that both
candidates looking to faith-based organizations as “a starting point for the
resolution of major social policy problems,” he said.
“Whoever wins, faith-based organizations are going to have a more
important and deeper role. They (Al Gore and George W. Bush) both want to talk
about partnership. To me that’s more important than ‘Jesus is my favorite
philosopher’ or ‘I always ask what Jesus would do.’”
Wallis then cited a Catholic teaching that says, “you try to solve a
problem at the most local level possible. Then you look for an appropriate
scale for whatever the problem is, looking at the grass-roots level. There are
very creative answers to be found.”
Dobson, an evangelical pastor in Grand Rapids, Mich., said “the people
I talk to around the country at one time naively thought that cultural change
could come from being politically active … but that’s not the answer.”
Many now believe that “the church should be the church” and take on local
programs on their own, he said.
“I get nervous when the government comes along. And obviously
faith-based organizations have the highest results of any organization working
with the social problems in the community. [Government officials] invite you to
dance and when you dance, you discover it’s an octopus. To me it’s scary what
the government would entangle us with — as opposed to ‘now I’m free to do
ministry in our community, real ministry that’s touching real lives and
transforming real communities.’”
One of the concerns, Thomas said, is the government saying that “we
have to extract the religious element from the program, otherwise we wouldn’t
be able to fund it under church-state separation. But if the religious element
is what’s changing the life of the drug addict or the prostitute or whatever
the antisocial behavior is, then you’ve just ripped out the whole reason for
the faith-based organization to be.”
Dobson’s church has partnered with a poor school in Grand Rapids.
Church members provide tutors, work the playground, get grants for the library
and remain sensitive to the church-state separation. “When you go in during the
day, you’re not preaching Jesus, you’re not preaching the Gospel. After school
we have programs that are religious-based, on Saturday night and Sunday,” he
“The government by itself can’t solve the problems my neighborhood
has,” Wallis said, “but let’s be clear: The church can’t solve them alone
either. The future … is partnerships. The principle is that everyone does
their share and everyone does what they do best.”
Wallis mentioned Indianapolis’ previous mayor, Steve Goldsmith, who
worked with a black Baptist church that wanted to convert a former crack house
into a rehabilitation center. Unfortunately the group couldn’t pay the
back taxes, but the mayor could — and did — eliminate them.
“That’s partnership, making something work,” he said.
The tough question is “how do you construct relationships that respect
the integrity of both sides, that don’t gut the integrity of faith-based
organizations? I don’t think it’s impossible but that’s what we’re doing right
now – trying to figure out those relationships,” Wallis said.
Jim Hartz, former NBC correspondent and former host of the “Today
Show” and now host of “The Real Bottom Line” on the Odyssey cable channel,
moderated the discussion. He asked Cal Thomas what had happened to the
religious right in politics, which Hartz said seems to have disappeared.
“They have penetrated the woodwork like termites and are now part of
the establishment,” Thomas said. “The mid 1980s were the high-water mark for
the religious right,” whose leaders have gotten older and lost their punch
politically. One good thing came out of the movement, he said, is that
“cultural issues are now front-burner — and that’s because of the
Wallis said there have been three great religious-based movements in
The first was the civil rights movement. “There would have
been no civil rights movement without the black church,” which provided
inspiration as well as carpools.
The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority. “It raised a
number of important issues, but the poor and race were never on their
“The third great movement is starting now – for economic
justice.” The move to cancel debt of the poorest nations is an example, he
Thomas criticized those who look for easy fixes of society’s problems,
such as hanging the Ten Commandments in schools. “I wonder how many who want
the Ten Commandments in schools could name even five of them — or
practice even one or two.” It’s one way for people to avoid teaching them at
home, he said.
Wallis, whose “neighborhood is 80 percent single-parent families,” was
similarly critical of those who find it easier to shift blame for their
problems in other directions. “You can’t blame gay people for the breakdown of
the heterosexual family.”
Thomas got a surprised laugh from the audience by suggesting that
candidates not bring up their faith unless they can explain “what difference
does it make on public policy. If it doesn’t, keep it private. If you’re
running for high office, tell me what difference it makes in your public life
or shut up.”
Hartz asked the panelists about the impact of Sen. Joseph Lieberman
becoming a vice presidential candidate for a major party. All three responded
“He’s a decent, kind, honorable man,” Thomas said. “He and Bill
Bennett and some African-American leaders have done a good job of raising
consciousness about cultural slime.” He added that both Republicans and
Democrats need to talk more, for example, about the homophobic and misogynistic
lyrics of some popular music “and shame companies that are making blood money
off this terrible stuff.”
Wallis said Lieberman was a good choice because he “took the issue of
religion away from the religious right” and was able to criticize both
Hollywood and President Clinton.
Dobson suggested that Lieberman was able to get coverage of views that
would have been ignored coming from the religious right.
Wallis said he was dubious about politicians in general espousing
their faith in campaigns: “The question is, would they risk losing the next
election for their faith? … I look to social movements, not politicians,
to make change.”
Politicians are always trying to figure out which way public opinion
is blowing, Wallis continued. “Don’t change the country by changing one
[...] politician for another. Change the country by changing the wind.”