When Sen. John Kerry chose then-Senator John Edwards to be his running mate in the 2004 presidential election, he said of Edwards, “I’ve seen John Edwards think, argue, advocate, legislate and lead for six years now…I know his skill, I know his passion, I know his strength, I know his conscience, I know his faith.”
At the time, Democrats were supposed to get in touch with faith – talking about it, professing it, demonstrating that their public policy positions derived from it. And if Democrats couldn’t quite convince the evangelical voting bloc who elected George W. Bush in 2000 that they were anti-choice, in favor of a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, opposed to stem cell research, and secure in Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they could at least make sure they weren’t losing out on voters who were waiting to hear a candidate for public office speak openly about his own views on faith. In 2000, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Vice-President Al Gore’s running mate, had done his part to bring the Almighty to the Democrats when he called repeatedly for injections of religion (not just religious values) into public life. Shortly after his nomination, he told the congregation of Fellowship Chapel, a large African-American church in Detroit, “I hope [my nomination]…will reinforce the belief that I feel as strongly as anything else, that there must be a place for faith in America’s public life.” Tellingly, he added, “George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition ‘that morality can be maintained without religion.’”
Lieberman sounds like he’s saying – in fact, he is saying – there can be no moral logic without religious belief. But just two presidential elections later, John Edwards, veteran now of one unsuccessful bid for presidential office, responded to a question from a Dartmouth student asking whether he would support a law allowing for full marriage benefits for gays and lesbians by saying, ‘‘I’ll admit I’m personally conflicted about these issues…I am not personally for gay marriage, but it troubles me that I’d use my own experience as the basis for a policy decision.” In the New York Times, John Broder wrote of Edwards’s response, “He explained that he was raised as a Southern Baptist in a conservative small town and was torn by the concept of same-sex marriage. He said that while he opposed same-sex marriage, he supported civil unions for gay couples and all anti-discrimination laws.”
When asked later about the student’s question, Mr. Edwards said that had the same question been posed to him in 2004, ‘‘I would have finessed it and given a formulaic answer…I just find it easier to be more candid now.’’ During that visit to Dartmouth, Edwards had told the crowd, “I, like all of you, have evolved.’’ Evolved to what?
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Kate Michelman, an Edwards campaign staffer and former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that “John is in process of grappling with the issues [of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights] both personally as well as from a public policy perspective.” That she would draw a distinction suggests that Edwards may understand and accept something Democrats recently have been loathe to – that he might use different logic to ground solid public policy than he would to make religious judgments – in other words, that civic values could be distinct from religious values.
Meanwhile, former mayor of New York City and Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani has plenty of religious credentials – a crucifix mounted on his bedroom wall growing up, a lifetime of Catholic education – but he doesn’t make use of them. (The New Yorker reported that Giuliani was “the only Republican candidate who declined to answer an Associated Press survey about church attendance.”) In fact, Giuliani often makes headlines for breaking with both Catholic and Republican doctrine in his views on abortion and civil unions for same-sex couples. In April of this year, at the South Carolina State House, a place where the most strident of anti-choice and homophobic legislation is born, Giuliani said that he would in fact support public funding of abortions if “that’s the status of the law” and said he was comfortable “with the fact that some voters would never agree with him.” Catholic bishops have declared Giuliani’s statements on abortion “pathetic” and “hypocritical;” James Dobson has publicly stated that his own “moral convictions” will not allow him to vote for Giuliani if he is nominated as the Republican presidential candidate. But Giuliani has countered that Republicans must learn how to deal with differing perspectives within their own party on these issues. “The way to understand me as a Catholic is, it’s my religion,” he says. “I have learned a lot from it. I am informed by it. But I am not directed by it.”
Perhaps Giuliani understands his faith this way because his own life doesn’t hew to Catholic doctrine. Francis Maier, who was instrumental in an effort by Catholics to deny John Kerry Communion in 2004 because of Kerry’s views on abortion, said that “The difference [with Giuliani] is that Kerry very specifically claimed to be Catholic, and practiced it publicly. But Giuliani—I mean, he’s publicly divorced, he’s fighting with his ex-wife, he doesn’t get along with his children, and so there isn’t really a whole lot of ambiguity about the guy, you know?” Were Giuliani to campaign as a Catholic, however, it becomes a different story: “Oh, yeah. That would be interesting. I hope he tries it,” Maier told the New Yorker’s Peter Boyer.
Is Giuliani’s proud refusal to inject his personal religious beliefs into his positions on controversial subjects like reproductive rights and gay rights a pointed strategy? Or does Giuliani genuinely embody the clarity around religion in political life that Edwards has claimed and John F. Kennedy before him realized as well? In an address to the Ministerial Association of Greater Houston in 1960, Kennedy said, “I believe in an America…where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source –where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” Have Giuliani and Edwards taken a page from Kennedy’s playbook, or do they just see a separation of church and campaign as an expedient way to deal with certain unorthodox beliefs?
Other indicators suggest that Democratic presidential hopefuls, Edwards included, are easing into the discussions of faith consultants and campaign staff have long been prodding them towards. “I think the 2008 election will be dramatically different from the 2004 election in relationship to issues of faith and values,” Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, a national network of progressive Christians, told ABC News. “The Democratic front-runners are all people who are clearly more comfortable in church as people of faith — relating their faith to politics — than the top Republican front-runners.” In June, Wallis moderated a conversation with Democratic front-runners Edwards, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Barack Obama about faith, values and politics; there, Rev. Wallis suggested that rather than distinguishing religion from politics, Democrats should bring the tone of biblical imperative and righteousness to issues beyond abortion and same-sex marriage. Those two issues “are not the only issues that fire the passions of religious voters. The issues now that are on our agenda include global poverty, climate change, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, Darfur, the war in Iraq,” Wallis said. And yet the flavor of the faith the Democrats bring to their campaigns is not a fundamentalist one. Depending on your perspective, Edwards displayed either considered, paced thoughtfulness or a waffling confusion when asked by Brian Williams at the Democratic debate in South Carolina whom he considers to be his “moral leader.” After several moments’ pause, he responded, “I don’t think I could identify one person who I consider to be my moral leader.” He went on to identify “My Lord,” his wife (“a source of great conscience”), and his father, but “Christ” was nowhere in evidence. Al Gore, by contrast, had said during the 2004 presidential election campaign that when faced with difficult decisions, he often asked himself that slogan well-known to be the polar opposite of independent thought: “What would Jesus do?”
Should religion be swept aside entirely in public policy discussions? Maybe not, Gary Rosen suggests in a New York Times editorial. After all, social justice traditions – not just the politicians who stood in their way – have long invoked the Bible and other religious texts to argue on behalf of their agendas. Rosen distinguishes between “conversation-stopping” fundamentalism and religious belief that can enter into dialogue, and, like Edwards, evolve. For Giuliani, eschewing doctrine may be a matter of necessity; for Edwards, maybe it’s maturity. But it sounds as though in 2008, if religion enters into the conversation, it could arrive as a panoply of voices, not a singular one.