A faith-based president?

October 14, 2004

JOHN KERRY attends Mass regularly, packs a well-thumbed Bible on the campaign trail and professes a social responsibility that reflects Catholic tradition. But the public perception of the Democratic senator is of neither a particularly religious man nor a man of religious conviction.

George W. Bush, a born-again Christian who publicly professes his faith, is recognized as the religious candidate in this campaign. And in the fight for undecided voters, Mr. Bush and his surrogates are not above using religion for political gain.

The Republican National Committee has posted a Web site - KerryWrongForCatholics.org - with a litany of reasons why. (And similar sites for Mormons and evangelicals.) The appeals to more than 60 million Catholic voters are selective by subject and deserve scrutiny not so much for what they say but for what they don't say.

Mr. Bush's opposition to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage has won him widespread support among evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics. The RNC and a few activist bishops would like to keep the focus on Mr. Kerry's pro-choice stand, support of benefits for same-sex partners and other polarizing issues. But a discussion of Mr. Bush's record on the death penalty, economic policy, poverty and war would find the president out of line with Catholic and Christian precepts.

Take the death penalty, which the Catholic Church opposes: While Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, the state's death chamber was the busiest in the nation. More recently, the increases in joblessness and poverty during the Bush administration - concerns cited in the Catholic bishops' "call to political responsibility" - haven't translated into more support for Mr. Kerry, who criticizes the president on these issues.

More evangelical Christians than Catholics may be in the camp of the born-again president, but they are not a monolithic group. Sojourners, a Washington-based Christian ministry, and a group of evangelical theologians have refused to cede the discussion to the better-organized, better-financed conservatives. They have supported a "God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat" campaign to urge voters to consider a full complement of issues pertinent to Christian values and ethics. The United Methodist Church, of which Mr. Bush is a member, offers a voters guide that shows how Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry stand on church "social principles," from abortion, health care and guns to immigration, taxes and a pre-emptive war strategy.

Some voters may have a religious litmus test for president, as is their right - but a president's religious beliefs ought not to be the sole measure of a candidacy. In a pluralistic society, the president has to govern for all, believers and nonbelievers, and certainly not according to one religion or select set of beliefs.

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