Finding God

In Washington, Eugene McCarthy once observed, only two kinds of religion are tolerated: vague beliefs strongly affirmed and strong beliefs vaguely expressed. His witticism bespoke the genial religiosity of presidents like Eisenhower (vague expression) and Reagan (vague beliefs)--not to mention the benign and undiscriminating White House chaplaincy of Billy Graham. The lesson for candidates seems to be: if you want to be president of all the people, invoke a generic deity everyone can salute.

But in Campaign 2000, vague is out--at least among the two front runners. George W. Bush, with a Christian right to consider, has let the world know that his heart belongs to Jesus. Al Gore, after intellectually sojourning among New Age mystics, talks about his faith, declaring to one audience that he is "a child of the Kingdom and a person of strong faith." In separate interviews, John McCain asserted his deep Christian beliefs, and even the reticent Bill Bradley reluctantly went on record: "The basic question is, do I believe in God? And the answer is yes."

It was not a particularly controversial admission. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in some kind of God, and 85 percent identify themselves as Christians. In times of crisis, especially, presidents have always raided the larder of religion to rally the nation's spirit. McCain, whose faith was tested in Hanoi torture chambers, finds it "impossible" to imagine "that a nation which is grounded in Judeo-Christian principles would somehow select someone [for president] who would repudiate those principles." Even Bradley, who continues to keeps his religious convictions essentially private, allows that religious faith "has an impact on all aspects of life, including what one does... as a politician."

Religious doctrine is not the issue. What counts is what the hopefuls have made of their religion--and what their religion has made of them--that might bear on presidential vision and public policy. The leading candidates' religious rhetoric should not be taken for a political platform: a careful look at the four front runners' public statements, and NEWSWEEK interviews with each, suggests that their individual faiths shed more light on their life journeys than on what they would do in the White House.

From the beginning of the Republic, America has struggled to reconcile religion with the dynamics of a democracy. Thomas Jefferson invoked the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, and the nation has always been guided, at least in part, by a sense of divine mission. But when you get down to specifics, history offers little evidence of direct interplay between faith and presidential leadership. Four presidents were preachers' kids--Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover. Of these only Wilson, a former president of Princeton, had serious theological training. Yet his exacting Calvinist thirst for perfection led him to reject U.S. membership in a less-than-perfect League of Nations. Jimmy Carter was manifestly the most pious of modern presidents, but the prayerful "partnership with God" he sought in the White House was not rewarded with a second term.

The four men trying to make history this year have all migrated from their inherited religious traditions. Bush, whose father is Episcopalian, taught Presbyterian Sunday school as a bachelor and became a Methodist when he married. When he declares, as he did in a televised debate, that Jesus "changed my heart," Bush is speaking the language of Wesleyan piety--but one that Texas Baptists readily understand.

Gore has been a Southern Baptist all his life, but not the kind that any fundamentalist would recognize. In a year of spiritual searching at Vanderbilt's Divinity School, Gore studied primitive religions and contemporary mind-body philosophy as well as the Hebrew prophets. Unlike most Southern Baptists, Gore does not center his religious life on a local congregation. On the contrary, the spiritual musings in his book, "Earth in the Balance," reveal a global, almost mystical sense of religious inclusiveness. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Gore was candid but careful when asked to describe his faith, noting that the "bedrock" of America is tolerance, diversity and religious freedom. "Now, having said that," the vice president continued, "I am a Christian, I am a Protestant, I am a Baptist. All of those labels are less significant to me than my own personal religious faith, which is shaped by the tradition that I have been raised in, but which has developed out of my own personal experience in life as well. And, indeed, the tradition of which I'm a part recognizes the importance of personal communication with the deity, along with the lessons that come from Scripture." Asked whether it would bother him if an atheist became president, Gore said, "No, it would not. I think that it would depend on who the person was, of course. But do I believe that someone can have an understanding of our Constitution [and] a true spirit of tolerance without affirming a particular and specialized belief in God? Yes, I do. I think that is incumbent upon anyone who affirms a respect for tolerance."

McCain was raised an Episcopalian but now worships at a Baptist church in Phoenix. Shot down over Vietnam in 1967, McCain endured nearly six years of torture in North Vietnamese prisons, where he also conducted Sunday services. When other prisoners asked God to get them out of prison, McCain urged his friends to elevate their prayers. "I told them we got shot down doing Caesar's business, and so we shouldn't ask God to get us out," he recalled last week. "I didn't want the U.S. to withdraw its troops just to get us POWs back. We should pray for an honorable peace, and if that means the POWs stay in longer, then we stay."

Bradley has cast his own spiritual sojourn as an escape from a different kind of prison. As a child in Crystal City, Mo., he heard the fearful thunder of tent revivalists. But his real spiritual formation began in junior high school, where he was drafted into the alpha evangelicalism of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Individualistic, emotional and determinedly nondenominational, the FCA molded Bradley into a prime performer at evangelistic youth camps. Off the court, Bradley memorized Scripture, published tracts and witnessed earnestly to others. During a down period at Princeton, Bradley tearfully gave himself to Christ--an emotional yielding that he has since put in coolly skeptical brackets. "I had convinced myself that this was my 'personal experience' with Jesus," Bradley wrote in a 1996 memoir. While a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Bradley continued his public witness for Christ, appearing at a huge London crusade with Billy Graham. But underneath, he later wrote, "I did not respect myself. I was speaking as if religious fervor continued to dominate my life." As a senator, Bradley was noticeably absent from the Washington prayer-breakfast circuit.

In many ways, Bush's spiritual odyssey has followed the reverse path: away from the complexities of his father's Washington milieu to the small-town verities of Midland, Texas. To select Jesus as one's favorite "political philosopher or thinker," as the governor did on national television, is to evoke an earlier, rural Protestantism where there was really only one important book: the Bible. Jesus, of course, created a movement, not a political party, and he preached a kingdom that was not of this world. In effect, Bush is saying--translated from the language of evangelical piety--"You can trust me because I've put my trust in Jesus."

In less cynical times, even non-Christian voters might find reassurance in a politician's public profession of faith. "I'd rather have a Christian bound by Scripture, as I am, than a functional atheist, bound by nothing," says the distinguished Talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner of the University of South Florida. But Bush's "rededication" to Jesus, as he calls it, has a highly personal, even therapeutic thrust. It coincided with his determination to quit drinking when he turned 40. Today Bush says his commitment to Christianity goes well beyond his decision to avoid alcohol. He reads Scripture daily--this year from a Bible given by Billy Graham. "Prayer guides me to be a better person," Bush said last week. "I pray daily. I read the Scriptures daily. It's where I find my strength and my solace and my comfort as a person. I don't pray for victory." Bush is sensitive to suggestions that he is using religion to garner support in the GOP primaries. "I don't say in my speeches, 'Vote for me, I'm the most religious person in the race.' I think it's important to judge people by how they live their life."

Abortion is one issue where one might expect to see a connection between faith and policy. But it's not that simple. The weight of Christian teaching has always favored the protection of human life. But American tradition has come to value the sanctity of the individual conscience--a value particularly dear to Protestants. That is where, explicitly and implicitly, most major candidates wind up. For Bradley, the Supreme Court settled the issue in 1973 by locating abortion within a wider constitutional right to privacy. "According to Roe versus Wade, the right to privacy holds here [over the life of the fetus]. And that's what I believe." Though Gore did cast some pro-life votes when he was in Congress, he now says he supports Roe v.Wade. Bush takes a Christian humanist view: "In a perfect world, life is given by God and only taken by God." McCain believes "the sanctity of human life is clearly a Judeo-Christian tradition." Yet for all this, neither Bush nor McCain is truly crusading against abortion rights.

Polls show that morality--but not just abortion--is among the top five issues on the minds of voters. In part, this may reflect reaction to the Clinton scandals, and to the sense of civic disorder symbolized by the killings at Columbine High. But this doesn't mean a Bible-quoting, churchgoing, publicly praying leader is the sort of occupant most Americans want to see in the White House. They already have one.