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Candidates Hit the Sawdust Trail

The 2004 presidential race is shaping up to be as much an old time religious revival as it is a political contest. Informed by consultants that 62 percent of American voters prefer candidates with religious convictions, Democratic presidential hopefuls are boning up on their pious platitudes. President Bush, of course, already has credibility on this issue with his open embrace of Christianity.

Even Howard Dean, seen by some as one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history, has put together a make-shift testimony involving his break with the Episcopal Church over a bike path. While not typically the stuff of evangelical epiphanies and conversion dramas, it’s at least a nod toward religious experience.

I have never found political piety to be all that convincing. It’s just one more thing political hopefuls have to do to prove their viability as candidates. It’s sort of like the old saying about faith in war time–there are no atheists in fox holes or seriously running for office.

Of course, the critical issue is convincing believers that the belief is genuine—that it meets a certain standard. Voters who have their political antennae tuned to religious wave lengths are not fooled by faint affirmations of traditional orthodoxy. For these staunch believers faith means adherence to a litany of social issues that now serve as the litmus test of a new orthodoxy.

Kerry and Gephardt, and all the rest, can talk all they want about how much they love Jesus. But if that love of Jesus does not lead them to the right side of issues such as homosexual unions, abortion, tax cuts, prayer in school and the Ten Commandments, it won’t matter how often they pray—they won’t have a prayer.

In this murky world of political piety it’s the right wing of both religion and politics that has the advantage. For one thing, they have been at it longer. But its not just experience that makes it work, its expertise. The political right has done a masterful job of taking legitimate faith concerns and patiently morphing them into right wing political policies. Wooing believers with the promise that faith is taken seriously, the political right has managed to turn elements of their economic and social policy agenda into tenets of faith. We have only to listen as the Christian Coalition defends tax cuts for the rich to see how effective this process has been.

Politicians have learned how insecure many people of faith feel. Desperate for public affirmation many in the faith community fall all over themselves if someone in public life mentions God or even when a football player drops to a knee and points heavenward after a big play. Apparently we have forgotten what Jesus said about piety for show.

Sadly, while grappling for these tidbits of public recognition, weightier matters of our faith are left behind. Poverty and violence and racism—issues that are legitimate and traditional faith concerns–are not only ignored but despised.

Pressing candidates to reveal or invent faith is not good for politics or religion. The spectacle of politicians trying to demonstrate who is the most pious only serves to deepen the cynicism that is already rampant among voters.

And giving lip service to God does not advance faith, it cheapens it. It takes the language of faith and reduces it down to mere political rhetoric. Language that has the power to heal and mend should never be treated so callously.

James L. Evans is pastor Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.