Trail Mix: The Battle for America's Soul

It was a case of almost perfect election symmetry. On the day George W. Bush rallied the faithful with a conversation about compassion, John Kerry appealed to reason with a speech about science. In the cosmic contest of values, it almost looked like a campaign between the faith-based president and the science-based senator.

Almost. As the Bush campaign points out, the president has substantially increased funding for the National Institutes of Health. And of course the senator is a practicing Roman Catholic whose sense of faith appears deep and personal. Yet their positions on both issues speak volumes for their polar-opposite personalities and leadership styles.

"Compassion" is what Bush's aides used to call compassionate conservatism. Back in 2000, the phrase was interpreted to mean some kind of Clintonesque middle ground, with the Texas governor positioning himself as "a different kind of Republican"--one who cared about social issues such as drug addiction and prisoner rehab. In fact Bush's aides were clear about their concept of compassion. It had nothing to do with Clinton's vision of the center ground in politics and everything to do with Bush's faith. The idea was to enable and encourage religious groups to deliver social services. Once inside the White House, Bush has struggled to push forward with faith-based programs that are very close to what he calls his heart but is better understood as his soul.

In Cincinnati earlier this week, Bush showcased several of his favorite religious programs--one designed to promote marriage, one to treat drug addicts and another to train ex-prisoners. His attitude to those programs showed not just how much he cares for such religious policies, but how little he cares for those who quibble over the separation of church and state.

"Government is not very good about changing hearts," he told his audience at a drug-addiction center. "Government is law and justice; government isn't love. But you can change your heart by interfacing with people who may have heard a call from above. And we in government ought not to worry about the process involved in these programs. We ought to just ask the question: are these programs working?"

Bush's answer to those who worry about the process of state-sponsored religion is clear. It doesn't matter so long as someone is changing hearts and saving souls. It would be hard to find a more explicit endorsement of Christian conservativism, or the social platform on which the president is seeking a second term.

Kerry, on the other hand, is precisely the kind of person who worries about the process involved in those programs. At a fund-raiser in Denver, on the same day Bush went to Ohio, Kerry earned one of his loudest rounds of applause by pledging to keep "the affairs of church and state" separate. "I say that as a person of faith who believes you can practice it powerfully but that distinction is part of what defines us as a nation," he explained.

Earlier, Kerry drew a more detailed contrast with Bush on his approach to science, in particular stem-cell research. Where Bush's attitude toward stem-cell research was shaped by his faith, Kerry declared his trust in facts. "We need a president who will once again embrace our tradition of looking toward the future and new discoveries with hope based on scientific facts, not fear," he said. Backed by the endorsement of 48 Nobel prize-winning scientists, Kerry said he would "listen to the advice of our scientists" before making his policy decisions (as opposed to evangelical groups). "I have full faith," he explained in an entirely nonreligious way, "that our scientists will go forward with a moral compass--with humane values and sound ethics guiding the way."

Like Bush's position on religion, Kerry was trying to define something more than an approach to science. He was trying to define and refine his vision of America. Stem-cell research sounded like some uniquely American frontier, and it only helped his vision that he could cite Ronald Reagan's name to evoke the frontier spirit. The Reagan family, led by Nancy, has been advocating full-on stem-cell research and against Bush's restrictions on scientists in that field. Whether any Republicans were swayed by the Reagan name seemed beside the point. Kerry's pitch was to the Reagan Democrats and the independent-minded, swing voters of the Midwest that he needs to break out of the current 50-50 race.

At this stage, voters seem to lean toward Kerry's position on American values by a narrow margin. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 46 percent of voters think Bush's positions on most issues are just right--neither too liberal nor too conservative. Kerry--the man the Bush campaign likes to call the most liberal man in the U.S. Senate--scores 51 per cent on the same question. Those numbers are not too far from the more direct question of whether the candidate "shares your values." Kerry bests Bush again, but this time by the even slimmer margin of 48 to 46 points. While both campaigns like to focus on approval ratings on one subject or another, the choice of a president often boils down to that personal sense of comfort with a leader. And most of us are most comfortable with people who share our values or our views of the issues.

Those issues and values go far beyond religion and science, of course. Voters' impressions of the values of both candidates are being shaped every day by their TV ads, policy speeches and their response to events like Iraq. But they are also shaped by how both men speak about the causes that matter to them. Beyond the attack ads and the slogans, there's the language of George Bush and John Kerry, and the glimpse it gives us of what's inside their heads.