Groups Debate Religion on Campaign Trail

While presidential candidates have been lining up in recent weeks to prove their religiosity on the campaign trail, groups like the Anti-Defamation League (search) are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the rhetoric and are asking them to tone it down.

"We don't think this campaign should be based on who's holier than thou," said Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director.

Earlier this month, Foxman and ADL Chairwoman Barbara Balser sent a letter to President Bush and the nine Democratic candidates, asking them, in part, not to appeal to voters on the basis of religion or to make it a "litmus test" for holding public office.

"What prompted this was an upsurge in religious appeal to the voting electorate," Foxman told

"If you declare your faith, go to church and believe in God, that's wonderful," he said. "But if you begin to appeal to voters, like 'vote for me, I'm Jewish," or "vote for me, I'm Catholic,' or because you go to church every Sunday, that's inappropriate and antithetical to the American tradition."

Foxman said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Congregationalist (search), has made the most recent  — and somewhat awkward — appeal to religious voters by first declaring that faith was a private matter and then telling reporters on the campaign trail in early January that he was gradually becoming more comfortable talking about it.

That change, Dean told reporters, came with learning about how important religion is in the South. Critics like to point out that Dean's new comfort corresponded with his effort to boost his numbers in the Bible Belt (search). Recent headlines have referred to Dean's "new piety" and his "finding religion."

When asked during a Jan. 6 debate whether religion had influenced any of his policy decisions, Dean was the only Democrat not to respond. A day later, he said his support for gay civil unions as governor of Vermont in 2000 was in part guided by his Christian faith.

Dean then erred when he said Job was his favorite book in the New Testament (search). Job is a book in the Old Testament.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search), said this is what happens when well-meaning candidates attempt to curry favor with religious voters.

"Howard Dean did what so many politicians do when they wander into the religious arena — they make mistakes," he said. "We are not electing a theologian-in-chief to the lead the country. We are not electing someone who is supposed to prove he is the greatest pastor or rabbi in the nation."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, has talked openly about the importance of faith in his life since he ran for vice president in 2000. ADL cited a recent statement by Lieberman as cause for their concern. In it, Lieberman said, "The [candidates] forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I fully support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

Recent polls indicate that while less than half the country actually votes based on religious beliefs, they think their leaders should speak more frequently about faith. A July 2003 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (search) found that 41 percent of Americans want politicians to talk more about faith and prayer. It also found that 62 percent liked the way President Bush referenced his own faith in policy-making.

The candidates have obviously picked up on that message, say political observers, who note that retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark recently said faith would become a centerpiece of his campaign message.

The other candidates, including Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry, a Methodist and Catholic respectively, have been more low-key about faith. However, they have recently been quoted as referring to the role of morality and the nature of good and evil more often in their campaign rhetoric.

"I think that most reasonable people will say that someone running for public office in the executive or legislative capacity who has a religiously-informed conscience is not only acceptable, but admirable," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League (search), who cautioned against any move to silence religious talk.

"We know there is an amount of pandering going on, but it's up to the citizens to decide for themselves if there's a politician who's crossing the line," he said.

Foxman and others agree, but are wary that the rhetoric will be increased in such a way as to be perceived as exclusionary to people who do not share the faith of the candidates on the stage.

"It's perfectly OK for presidential candidates or any candidate to explain their religious conviction as part of understanding their personal values and character," said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and general counsel of the People for the American Way (search).

"But what [ADL is] concerned about is when religion becomes a private club," he said, one that not everyone in America is necessarily a member. "That's when you can exclude and divide."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics (search), said there has always been a healthy fear of religious tyranny in this country, but democratic elections are the best way to quash such things before they can grow.

In other words, he said, a politician who crosses the line, as Foxman described, exploiting religion for political gain, would be "pulverized by the press," and the voters.

"The ADL is afraid that Jewish-Americans will be engulfed by the marriage of Christianity and politics and that they will feel intimidated by it," said Sabato. "That might be a legitimate fear, but I doubt that it ever happens. At some point you have to trust the system."