In my latest reading of Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future (copyright 2006), James Carville and Paul Begala criticize how John Kerry talked about his faith during the 2004 Presidential Election. Essentially, according to Carville and Begala, Kerry “usually repeated a variation of JFK’s line that the church would not control him” (page 65). Carville and Begala found Kerry’s approach to be outdated, especially in a time when the Republicans were resonating with a number of voters by talking about faith, whereas the Democrats were widely believed to have a problem with religion. According to Carville and Begala, the Democrats should not be afraid to talk boldly about their faith and how that shapes their commitment to social justice.
Carville and Begala most likely have more expertise than I do on what is politically savvy, but, speaking for myself, I actually liked what John Kerry had to say about his faith—-actually more than what George W. Bush said about it. And this was a time when I was a conservative and an avid George W. Bush fan—-one who actually admired Bush because of his commitment to evangelical Christianity. What follows are quotations from the third Presidential debate in 2004, as John Kerry and George W. Bush discuss the role of faith in their lives and their decision-making:
Kerry was asked about the Catholic archbishops who said that it was a sin to vote for a pro-choice candidate, and he replied:
” I respect their views. I completely respect their views. I am a Catholic. And I grew up learning how to respect those views. But I disagree with them, as do many. I believe that I can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith. I believe that choice is a woman’s choice. It’s between a woman, God and her doctor. And that’s why I support that. Now, I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade…Now, with respect to religion, you know, as I said, I grew up a Catholic. I was an altar boy. I know that throughout my life this has made a difference to me. And as President Kennedy said when he ran for president, he said, ‘I’m not running to be a Catholic president. I’m running to be a president who happens to be Catholic.’ My faith affects everything that I do, in truth. There’s a great passage of the Bible that says, ‘What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead.’ And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people. That’s why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith. But I know this, that President Kennedy in his inaugural address told all of us that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own. And that’s what we have to—-I think that’s the test of public service.”
That was the JFK answer that Carville and Begala were criticizing.
Later, George W. Bush was asked about the role of faith in his policy-decisions, and Bush replied:
“First, my faith plays a lot—-a big part in my life. And that’s, when I answering that question, what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my faith is a very—-it’s very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm’s way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls. But I’m mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an almighty and if you choose not to. If you’re a Christian, Jew or Muslim, you’re equally an American. That’s the great thing about America, is the right to worship the way you see fit. Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, ‘Well, how do you know?’ I said, ‘I just feel it.’ Religion is an important part. I never want to impose my religion on anybody else. But when I make decisions, I stand on principle, and the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself, as manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we’ve unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s been part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to see freedom on the march. And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me, and religion is a part of me.”
And Kerry responded:
“Well, I respect everything that the president has said and certainly respect his faith. I think it’s important and I share it. I think that he just said that freedom is a gift from the Almighty. Everything is a gift from the Almighty. And as I measure the words of the Bible—-and we all do; different people measure different things—-the Koran, the Torah, or, you know, Native Americans who gave me a blessing the other day had their own special sense of connectedness to a higher being. And people all find their ways to express it. I was taught—-I went to a church school and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are: Love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, your body and your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. And frankly, I think we have a lot more loving of our neighbor to do in this country and on this planet. We have a separate and unequal school system in the United States of America. There’s one for the people who have, and there’s one for the people who don’t have. And we’re struggling with that today. And the president and I have a difference of opinion about how we live out our sense of our faith. I talked about it earlier when I talked about the works and faith without works being dead. I think we’ve got a lot more work to do. And as president, I will always respect everybody’s right to practice religion as they choose—-or not to practice—-because that’s part of America.”
So why did I prefer what John Kerry said about faith? As I reread their comments, I don’t think that John Kerry is being particularly fair if he’s implying that Bush does not believe that faith without works is dead, for Bush talked about how his faith influences him to pursue policies that enhance the healing and freedom of others. And yet, I like the low-key, matter-of-fact, succinct, and practical way that Kerry talked about his faith. When I first heard Bush, I thought that he focused too much on how his faith comforted him. Kerry, by contrast, talked about what the Bible taught, and how he tried to follow that (while not imposing his Catholic beliefs about abortion on people). I (like Bush) am one who finds comfort in my faith, but I thought that Kerry’s answer had more theological content and was more orderly than what Bush said. That probably resonated with the religion student part of me, not to mention the Aspie part!