AUSTIN, Texas – Just a few miles from George W. Bush's former office at the state Capitol, a panel of religious experts weighed a question with relevance to many people of faith: How would Jesus vote?
It's a complex topic that can't be boiled down to simple political terms, said religious leaders who attended a Texas Faith Network (search) conference in Austin on Tuesday.
James C. Moore (search), co-author of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George Bush Presidential," drew laughter and applause when he offered his view to the moderate to left-leaning crowd of about 250 clergy and lay leaders.
"If ever there were a bleeding-heart liberal, it was Jesus Christ," Moore said at Congregation Agudas Achim synagogue. "I think the carpenter from Galilee was the original Democrat."
Many at the conference voiced concerns that the religious right dominates discussions of faith and morality in politics. They complained that issues such as abortion and gay marriage seem to take priority over hunger, corporate crime and even the war in Iraq.
Some research has found that white Christians who attend worship services at least once a week are far more likely to vote Republican, while less frequent worshippers and those who are not religious tend to lean Democratic. Many analysts have criticized Democrats for failing to more effectively reach religious voters.
"The sound bites and the headlines have co-opted people of faith," said the Rev. Tom Heger, pastor of St. John's Presbyterian Church in Manchaca, south of Austin. "It would be a surprise to a lot of folks to discover that there are some very faithful, regular church attendees who aren't going to vote for Bush."
Conservative pastors such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "would have us believe that morality is all about where you stand on abortion, how you treat homosexuals. I think that is simply wrong," said John D. Moyers, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress.
The presidential race pits President Bush, a Republican who openly professes his evangelical Christian beliefs, against Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Roman Catholic who is more hesitant to discuss his faith publicly.
The Rev. Timothy Tutt, pastor of United Christian Church in Austin, declined to say whom he will support in November, but balked at the perception that Bush is the only choice for people of faith.
"As I read the Scriptures and as I understand faith, God's side is the group that's feeding the poor, caring about children, making sure that people have enough food to eat — not killing others," said Tutt, who opposes the war in Iraq.
Juan Galvan, Texas president of the Latino American Dawah Organization, a group of Hispanic Muslims, said he's certain Jesus would not vote strictly for Republicans or Democrats.
"Prophet Jesus, or Isa as Muslims call him, would look at the stance of politicians on various issues before voting," Galvan said. "He would weigh in the good and bad of each individual."
Michael Jinkins, a pastoral theology professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said: "Based on my reading of the Gospels, I think Jesus might surprise us all on his voting record. He was far less 'religious' than the people who criticized him most."
In fact, Jesus might not support Bush or Kerry — or anyone else, for that matter.
"Jesus was not one to take sides on political issues," said Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco.
While there were obviously no Democrats or Republicans during the time of Jesus, different groups vied for attention, including the fundamentalist Pharisees, the aristocratic Sadducees, the spiritually devout Essenes and the revolutionist Zealots.
"Interestingly, Jesus never sided with any of these groups but remained above such earthly disputes," Davis said. "This does not mean we should do the same. He was God. We are mere humans."