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Issue Date:  October 15, 2004

Time for Kerry to talk religion

Last month, NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd reported in his online column that influential voices in the Kerry campaign were urging the candidate to deliver a speech outlining his thinking on the role faith plays in public life.

Apparently, those voices are still at it and Kerry, according to The New York Times, is feeling greater pressure to address the issue.

We wish he would, not in a way that panders to those who misuse religion, grotesquely distorting it to provide political traction and easy answers, but in a manner that recognizes the complexities that come with claiming a faith in a transcendent God while trying to discern how that faith informs the actions of a public servant in a pluralistic society.

In the broad Christian world, the language of religion has been kidnapped by fundamentalist elements that place the most extreme and narrow meanings to terms that once helped the community navigate the tricky and sometimes dangerous intersections of contemporary culture and ancient religious traditions.

In the Catholic world, similar forces -- also representing a small and narrow band of believers within a sprawling and diverse community -- have commandeered center stage and are attempting to rework the Catholic understanding of public service and public life. Their views are extreme and, in the long run, harmful.

Further, as John Allen reports in this week’s issue (see story), the Vatican at large is hardly monolithic on the subject. After numerous interviews with a wide range of contacts throughout the Vatican bureaucracy, he is left to conclude that the Vatican would probably vote 60-40 for Kerry.

We are, here, not recommending a vote for anyone. We simply recommend that religion, valuable in informing government on moral issues, not be used as a simplistic bludgeon to extract votes from groups of believers.

It is a disgrace when President Bush and others in his administration suggest that God bestows some special favor on the United States over other nations or that God, in some special way, is guiding our foreign policy. That borders on blasphemy, and it is about time some politician of national stature says so.

At the same time, forsaking personal conscience in the performance of public duty is equally disingenuous and false. Kerry need not take on the aura of a fundamentalist or evangelical. He need only be a thoughtful Catholic.

What Kerry needs to assure believers, those in the broad middle, is that he does consider issues from a moral perspective informed by his personal faith and open to the convictions of others. He needs to convince others that being a moral person does not mean parading your religious conviction constantly, nor does it mean that God constantly provides you with lock tight answers.

That said, Kerry’s task is a difficult one, made harder by his party’s baggage and what campaign staffers term his reticence to engage religious vocabulary.

To the first point, millions of Christian believers -- and some good number of voters -- need Kerry’s campaign, and the candidate himself, to offer some understanding of the dilemma in which they find themselves. Generally supportive of Democrats on a broad range of issues -- the war, tax cuts, the environment, education, health care -- these voters resist the national Democratic Party’s knee-jerk absolutism on abortion. Not too long ago, we offered our view on how to break this logjam (NCR, Sept. 24, “A new approach to reducing abortions”). Whatever the approach Kerry chooses, however, it’s an issue that must be addressed.

Next, those who inquire of Kerry’s religious beliefs are frequently told that the candidate “doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve.” In fact, Kerry said exactly that in his Democratic Convention speech.

Fine. There’s too much pietistic religiosity in our public discourse to begin with.

But one suspects that Kerry, like many of us (and perhaps like George W. Bush) is, in fact, not all that serious about his faith. Or that, like most Americans, other things take precedence in his life. Or, that like many politicians, he feels the need to be perceived as more religious than he actually is. On the other hand, maybe Kerry’s faith is a more significant part of his persona than we realize, if only because of his fabled reticence.

It doesn’t really matter. The point is that in addressing religion Kerry needs to be Kerry. He needs to be authentic and offer a sincere account of his beliefs and what they might mean to the nation were he to be elected.

Anything less would be just political smoke and mirrors. And, God knows, we’ve had enough of that this election season.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2004

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