Rev. Douglas Tanner, helping legislators keep the faith in D.C. In the Spirit of Politics

August 28, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- Beyond the throngs of tourists circling the Capitol, the Rev. W. Douglas Tanner Jr. bears witness to a dime-store version of his crusade.

On the marble steps of this august building, a demonstrator has placed an adult-sized statue of Jesus with a lamb and menorah -- like some Nativity scene gone awry. Although he had nothing to do with it, Mr. Tanner understands the intent of its creator, a demure woman listening to hymns on a tape recorder.

"I guess she has her way of expressing her faith," he says in a North Carolina drawl as inviting as this late summer day. "And I have mine."

His way happens to be the Faith & Politics Institute, a fledgling nonprofit in the heart of Capitol Hill that strives to help legislators, aides and lobbyists join two seemingly strange bedfellows: spirituality and political life.

Part old-fashioned Bible study and New Age support group, the institute defies easy labels. For some 40 participants -- Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, low-level assistants and high-ranking congressmen -- faith takes many forms: reading scripture and breathing deeply, maintaining silence and making up prayers, telling stories and keeping journals. Faith in Washington now even comes accompanied by George Winston music.

The nerve center of the institute is nothing more than a converted efficiency in a brownstone that once housed the Methodist Episcopal Church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals. Mr. Tanner's office doubles as the staff kitchen.

But earthly walls matter little to him. Instead, the space he hopes to inhabit is the minds and souls of Washington's powerful and political.

"I think of this as a campus ministry on Capitol Hill," says Mr. Tanner, 47, a United Methodist minister and executive director of the group. "It is a challenge to hold in one hand your capacity to pull the strings and in the other to be in touch with who you `` authentically are."

While it's hardly the only attempt to blend the two worlds (by one congressman's account, there are 60 informal religious groups on Capitol Hill), the institute is one of the least conventional.

Although it's kept a low profile since beginning three years ago, the institute has been miscast at times as a '90s-style feel-good group or mouthpiece for the religious right. It's also raised the eyebrows of some traditional politicians, who prefer that when it comes to their souls and matters of state the twain never meet.

Religious value

But in an administration where President Bill Clinton peppers his speech with Bible passages, Hillary Rodham Clinton preaches the politics of meaning, and controversies like Whitewater leave the public debating the role of character in politics, religious values have perhaps more than ever found their way into this buttoned-down, power-brokered town.

So, in the early hours before the workday officially begins, participants meet once a week in small groups to wrestle with the ethics of special-interest money, flag burning and the death penalty. They cope with dying parents, child-rearing and troubled marriages. After breathing exercises and acoustic music, they listen to and discuss spiritual readings.

Along the way, there have been glitches. Mr. Tanner considers it a success if participants make two out of every three meetings. Beepers are sometimes heard as often as "Amen." And meetings have occurred when only one person turned up.

In a city where information equals power and money, one rule is steadfast: Nothing leaves the room. It's a fact that some participants reiterate when revealing news that could damage careers.

The group is so protective of its privacy that it declined to have a reporter sit in on a meeting. One member, Rep. Martin Lancaster, a Democrat from North Carolina, declined to even mention topics discussed in meetings and expressed disappointment that others had.

"This is a personal and private time," he says. "I do not think we should be discussing outside of the group what we discuss inside."

Others, however, are more forthcoming about how the institute has affected them.

"I don't attend church regularly," says Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a lobbying group in Washington. "I don't want to overplay this, but in a sense, this is my church. It's a touchstone, a place I can go and be with people who want to relate at a spiritual level."

Doug Koopman, a senior economist with the Joint Economic Committee, shares her sentiments.

"It's nice to know there are other people dealing with: How do you integrate spiritual life with the pragmatic and sometimes mean political game?" he says.

If they believe, it's in part because of the charismatic leadership of Doug Tanner. Blond and tan, he blends the earnestness of a preacher with the savvy of a politician.

As a youngster, though, Mr. Tanner never imagined he would straddle these worlds.

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