Should Be Free, Not Forced, To Share Faith
By Tom Strode
WASHINGTON (BP) June
24, 2008 – Candidates for the White
House and other offices should be free to say how their religious beliefs
impact them but should not be expected to explain the specifics of their faith,
Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land said at a forum on
religion in the 2008 election.
Appearing with five other
panelists, Land said there needs to be a "careful distinction" in how
candidates address their faith. They should be free to talk about how their
beliefs influence their values and performance, "but they shouldn't either
be asked to be or volunteer to be a spokesperson for their faith tradition, in
other words talking about the particulars of their faith," said the
president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"I think to go into the
particular beliefs of a particular faith and to try to grill a candidate on
that is an intrusion into his personal faith," Land said. "I think
what we want to know in a campaign is how that person's faith impacts them.
"I think that a candidate
ought to talk about his faith to the extent he's comfortable talking about his
faith or she's comfortable talking about her faith, and do so as a way of
introducing themselves ... if they choose to," he said, adding that voters
will decide on candidates who decide not to talk about their faith.
"But you shouldn't talk
about it if it's not comfortable, and you shouldn't try to fake it," Land
said. "I mean the infamous example is [2004 Democratic candidate] Howard
Dean, who said that his favorite New Testament book was Job."
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend,
former lieutenant governor of Maryland and daughter of the late Robert F.
Kennedy, suggested a challenge in this election "is the cultural
requirement, it seems to me, that people talk about their faith, because, for
many Catholics, talking about our faith was not what we did, and many
Episcopalians, I think, didn't talk about their faith, whereas the evangelical
community does talk about their faith.... [O]ne of the cultural challenges is
to get people to understand one can be a faithful person and not act and talk
in the same way, which has been difficult."
Welton Gaddy, president of the
Interfaith Alliance, acknowledged religion is being discussed in this year's
presidential campaign -– in which Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John
McCain are the leading candidates -– but questioned whether it is "being
talked about as religion or as political strategy."
"Religion retains its
integrity when it gets treated as religion," Gaddy said. "When
religion becomes a part of political strategy, it loses its integrity, and it
compromises the spirit of democracy."
Both Land and Gaddy pointed to
a speech by the late President John F. Kennedy as an example of how a candidate
should handle religion in a campaign. A Roman Catholic, Kennedy made what
became a famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association when he
was running for president in 1960.
Land said he thinks it
"was almost a word-perfect speech in terms of balance." Kennedy
"didn't spend one sentence trying to define his faith. He defended the
right of someone from his faith" to seek office.
"He said, 'I am not the
Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for
president,'" Land said in recalling the speech. "Then he went on to
say, 'My faith informs my conscience. I'll be guided by my conscience in making
decisions about what's best for the country. And I'm not going to deny my faith
in order to win this office, and it would be a travesty if I were asked
Near the end of his speech,
Kennedy said, as Gaddy recalled it, "If at any time my conscience comes in
conflict with my responsibility to defend the Constitution, I will resign the
Gaddy said, "I think every
presidential candidate ought to be able to answer that question for the good of
our Constitution and for the preservation of our freedom."
Panelists returned at various
times during the nearly two-hour discussion to a much-discussed topic of the
campaign -- Barack Obama's longtime membership in a Chicago church where the
pastor, Jeremiah Wright, preached black liberation theology and made
controversial comments about America. Although he initially defended his former
pastor, Obama eventually denounced Wright's remarks and resigned his membership
in the church after an April speech by Wright at the National Press Club.
The two most conservative
members of the panel -– Land and Keith Pavlischek, senior fellow at the
Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center -– had different opinions on
who threw whom "under the bus" in the Obama-Wright relationship.
"What does this say about
Barack Obama?" Pavlischek asked. "[H]e took this guy, who was his
spiritual mentor for 20 years ... and basically threw him under the bus, as the
metaphor goes, and now [has] bailed out of the church. Why? For political
expediency.... It becomes purely a Machiavellian, expedient move. Does anybody
here think that Barack Obama and his family would have resigned from that
church had he not been a candidate?"
Land said, "Jeremiah
Wright's performance at the National Press Club was a disgrace. And to me the
most disgraceful thing about it was he threw his parishioner under the bus. I
mean, Barack Obama tried to be loyal to this guy. I felt like Barack Obama was
used by Jeremiah Wright.
"Jeremiah Wright said,
'Well, he just said what politicians have to say to get elected.' He questioned
Barack Obama's integrity. He questioned his honesty," Land said.
"With a shepherd like that, who needs wolves?"
The other panelists were Mahdi
Bray of the Muslim American Society and Kenyatta Gilbert, assistant professor
at Howard University School of Divinity.
The June 4 panel discussion,
which took place at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, was taped for
broadcast on "Interfaith Voices," a weekly program on WAMU, a public
radio station in the area. The edited broadcast and entire, unedited forum are
both available online at http://interfaithradio.org/audio.
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