Politicians best leave God off their platforms

June 22, 1999|By Michael Olesker

In the mountains of Western Maryland, in the year 1956, I had my first crisis of faith. I asked God to part the waters of the swimming pool at Camp Airy the way he had parted the waters of the Red Sea for the children of Israel, and he did not.

God and I have been discussing this little failing on somebody's part - Whose part? His? Mine? That's the crux of it, isn't it? - for the past 43 years, and after all this time, in our way, the two of us have settled absolutely nothing.

And I find this eternally stimulating. I think issues of faith are supposed to be each individual's to share privately with the God of his or her choosing, even if it takes an entire lifetime to figure them out.

And I think this is not the business of Al Gore, or George W. Bush or Elizabeth Dole, or anyone in Washington wishing to put the Ten Commandments inside schoolrooms, even if they're doing it for reasons beyond their mere political interests of the season - which I doubt.

I relate the business of Camp Airy and the swimming pool because it was the first time I remember trying to work out the details of faith - and because, in the current political climate, those details surface again because a national election looms.

God is being invoked, and then reinvoked. He is wrapped around candidates' shoulders like a flag. He is personalized in the pursuit of political power, and simplified as though we all have the same notion of him, even though we don't.

Forty-three years ago, for whatever it's worth, my little problem with God was the beginning of understanding faith's complexities. I was 11. Gazing across the natural rustic wonders of Western Maryland, I asked God to let me pass the deep-water test at Camp Airy, in return for which I agreed to make certain major concessions in my personal behavior.

For several days, I upheld my end of the bargain. Then, full of faith but absent all swimming skills, I took the deep-water test. In a swarm of churning water and flailing arms and legs, I sank like a stone.

"I might have drowned," I have since informed God, in case he had been looking elsewhere during my moment of crisis.

"But you didn't," he says, inside my head.

"And who's responsible for that?" I ask.

The answer to this question fuels our endless debate, and also fuels the questions of all who ponder God's role in our lives, including those who wish to lead the nation and wrap up God's electoral votes.

They invoke all manner of reference to God, and how he takes them safely through difficult waters. George W. Bush, meeting with churchgoers in Houston recently, said he had "recommitted my life to Jesus Christ."

Elizabeth Dole, at a prayer breakfast in Philadelphia, declared that she once kept God "neatly compartmentalized" but now submitted to him totally. "It was time," she said, "to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe - and God accepted my resignation."

And Al Gore, not wishing to concede ground in his intimate relationship with God, has lately talked of his faith and his wife's, and expressed delight that Americans have "the highest level of religious belief and observance of any advanced nation."

I am pleased for all of them, but wish they would keep such personal information to themselves. Their relationship with their vision of God is their business and not mine, and not the country's, either.

Faith is private. It's a secret we whisper to our vision of God - if we believe in God. In this country, either notion is allowed. The Founding Fathers, students of history, understanding the dangers of mixing politics and theology, carefully omitted all references to God when they wrote the Constitution.

Today, though, those running for president invoke God's name - so they say - because the country needs a stronger sense of morality. Does anyone not have a problem with immorality? Has there ever been a candidate running on an anti-morality platform?

The problem is confusing public morality with public declarations of a special relationship with God, which is not necessarily the same thing, and is unprovable anyway, and makes many thinking people feel they're being manipulated for political gain.

Bill Clinton for example, has told us repeatedly how he genuinely believes in God. Has he also given us a picture of morality?

To invoke God in a political forum is to imply possession of some ultimate truth. In this country, we provide room for all kinds of religious, or unreligious, visions of truth. It's one of our greatest sources of continuous vitality.

God deserves better than easy, one-dimensional sound bites, and so does the country. These politicians approach religion with all the subtlety of a child bargaining to get himself through water that's over his head.

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