Questions of Faith

01 November 2004

A pastor reflects on the religious questions he wishes the press had asked Bush & Kerry.

By Ben Daniel

In presidential politics religion matters. Religion matters because a majority of American voters repeatedly have expressed a desire to have a man of faith in the oval office, but more than that, religion matters because ultimately, in one way or another, everyone is religious. It is part of what makes us human: whether we have pledged our allegiance to one of the great and organized faith traditions or have jumped on the bandwagon of a new religious movement; whether we’re undecided and agnostic or are deeply committed atheists, all of us have beliefs and convictions that drive and inspire us.

Presidential candidates are no exception, and as the American people take on the overwhelming task of choosing who will be the most powerful man in human history, we are wise to make inquiry into the candidates’ faiths — the metaphysical, moral, and ethical systems—which cannot help but find expression in the decisions of a president.

But even at this late date, with the election just days away, our knowledge of the beliefs of George W. Bush and John Kerry remains incomplete. Seldom have the candidates been asked tough questions about faith and the role it plays in forming public policy, and when such questions have been raised, the answers have been dissatisfying.

The presidential debates were a good example. Over the course of three debates, the candidates were asked about faith and public policy only in two questions by Bob Schieffer of CBS News. The questions were good, but the answers left me wanting more. I wish Schieffer had probed deeper into how the faith of both candidates informs him in the work of governance.

For example, Schieffer asked the President what role faith played in his policy decisions. It was a question that gave the President an opportunity to remind us that he is a pious man of prayer:

First, my faith plays a lot — a big part in my life…I pray a lot. And I do.

And my faith is a very — it’s very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm’s way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls…

Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency.

It was artful dodge. The question hadn’t been about the president’s piety but about his faith. In the 2000 election, Bush was asked to name his favorite political philosopher, and he said, “Jesus Christ.” I want to know which of Jesus’ teachings guided Bush as he initiated a unilateral, preemptive invasion of Iraq. As a Christian, Bush is a member of the Methodist Church. I want to know how the theology of Methodism’s founders, John and Charles Wesley —both abolitionists and early champions of racial equality — informs his views on affirmative action. Among Methodists, Bush is an evangelical, meaning he favors a literal reading of the Bible. I want to know how such a reading of Scripture has led him to implement a tax policy that benefits the rich. It is good to know that Bush is a pious man of prayer, but so is Al Sharpton. I want to know about the President’s faith.

John Kerry’s response to a question about his faith and public policy left me similarly dissatisfied and desirous of further questioning. Schieffer asked Kerry to respond to the fact that,

The New York Times reports that some Catholic archbishops are telling their church members that it would be a sin to vote for a candidate like you because you support a woman’s right to choose an abortion and unlimited stem-cell research.

In response, Kerry pledged not to allow his personal convictions to stand in the way of a woman’s right to choose:

I believe that I can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith.

But within the same two-minute answer Kerry also said that his faith guides him in matters of public policy:

And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people. That’s why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.

I want to know where Kerry draws the line. Why is it wrong to look to faith for guidance on abortion but right to do so when legislating environmental protections? When are matters of faith off limits in the public arena, and when are they to be used to guide a leader’s actions? What tests are used to release a religious doctrine from the confines of private religion such that it may influence the formulation of public policy? Can it be known how and when Kerry, as president, would be guided by his Roman Catholicism rather than by what is politically expedient?

In presidential politics religion matters. We need to know what our candidates believe. We need smart analysis of the foundational values and metaphysical convictions that will motivate and guide our aspiring leaders. Fortunately, such knowledge is available to us to be considered and scrutinized. We simply need to ask the right questions.

And we need to keep asking the right questions. When the election is over and the last dangling chad has fallen, we still will need to know and understand the faith systems that influence the leadership of the Commander-in-Chief. In the aftermath of November second, I hope good questions will be asked, direct and pointed questions that speak to how the election’s winner will be guided by faith on specific issues both, foreign and domestic.

For example, many evangelical Protestants see the conflicts in the Middle East, especially those conflicts involving Israel, to be a realization of the Bible’s apocalyptic prophecies, with the United States acting as an instrument in God’s plan for the protection and exaltation of Israel in preparation for Jesus’ second coming. I want to know if George W. Bush is influenced by such theology. If I could, I would ask him the following questions:

Mr. President, what does your faith tell you about America’s role in the world? How does your evangelicalism inform your support for Israel? What does it tell you about the relationship between Israel and the United States?

And if John Kerry is elected, I’d want to push him a little bit on how and when he allows himself to be guided by the Catholic morality to which he has claimed adherence.

Mr. Kerry, how does your Roman Catholicism inform your lack of support for gay marriage? If your faith does not inform your lack of support for gay marriage, what has led you to believe that marriage should be reserved for heterosexuals?

Of course, good questions of faith and public policy need not be designed as traps. I’d like to ask Bush,

What faith traditions and values guided you when you proposed that the United States spend 15 billion dollars over five years on the AIDS crisis in Africa, and what other initiatives do you see yourself proposing as you are inspired by those traditions and values?

In a similar way I’d like to ask John Kerry,

You have suggested that the United States should work toward energy independence, both for reasons of national security and as a way of protecting the environment. How have the values and traditions of your faith inspired your commitment to the environment, and how will they sustain you when your environmental initiatives meet resistance from corporate interests?

In presidential politics religion matters. In the final days of campaigning and in the first days of the next administration we need more questions about the role of faith in the formation of public policy, more analysis of the answers given, and more conversation in the ongoing national discourse.

A graduate of Westmont College and Princeton Theological Seminary, Ben Daniel is the pastor of Foothill Presbyterian Church in San Jose, California. His writing has appeared in many local, regional and national publications.