No shying away from God Talk in campaign

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 12/23/1999

ASHINGTON - Senator John McCain says he doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve, but a stirring testimonial to his Christian faith is on the air in South Carolina.

In a radio ad titled ''A Christmas Story,'' retired Air Force Col. Bud Day says he will never forget being deeply touched by the sermon McCain, his cellmate, composed for the servicemen in a Vietnamese prison camp on Christmas night, 1971. ''It certainly was a shot to everyone's morale to hear those Christian words in that very un-Christianlike place,'' Day recalls.

Texas Governor George W. Bush publicly attests that Jesus ''changed my heart.'' Vice President Al Gore proudly declares he is a born-again Christian. Steve Forbes said on a TV news show last Sunday that Jesus Christ is his savior. Senator Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes profess that their faith in God is fundamental to who they are and how they would lead the nation.

There are plenty of political reasons why God Talk is so prevalent in this presidential campaign. The candidates are trying to show they are more virtuous than the man in the White House. Tragedies like the murders at Columbine High School focus voters on the country's perceived moral weaknesses. Constituencies of conservative Christians have clout in next month's Iowa caucuses and upcoming primaries in the South.

But the unusual intensity and passion of the Christian rhetoric in this campaign - which is disturbing to some, especially for its sectarian edge - very likely springs as much from the candidates' personal journeys of faith as it does from raw political calculation, people close to them say.

Bush, Gore, and Bauer, all Southerners who attend evangelical churches, tell soulful, personal stories of times of trouble or doubt that led them to commit to Jesus Christ. Even McCain and Senator Bill Bradley, the two candidates who say the subject is too private to discuss in their campaigns, write in their memoirs of profound encounters with religion and spirituality.

The cruelty and godlessness of the Hanoi prison camp where he was held for more than five years, McCain wrote in ''Faith of My Fathers,'' could have shattered his faith. Instead, McCain said, he embraced the words of the creed that another prisoner had scratched into the cell wall: ''I believe in God, the Father Almighty.

''There, standing witness to God's presence in a remote, concealed place, I felt God's love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation in the most magnificent cathedral,'' McCain wrote. In prison, the once-cocky Naval aviator said he ''prayed more often and fervently than I ever had as a free man,'' and his most sacred Christmases were spent with the ''gaunt, unshaven, dirty, and generally wretched congregation'' of fellow POWs.

McCain was raised an Episcopalian, is married to a Congregationalist, and now belongs to a Baptist church in Phoenix. ''We don't go to church every week, we aren't as fervent as we should be,'' said Cindy McCain, the Arizona senator's spouse. ''But John is a man of great faith and inspiration.''

Bush, McCain's chief rival for the GOP nomination, has surprised aides with his avowals of Christian faith. Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now an adviser to the Texas governor, said he was ''taken aback'' when Bush, asked in a televised debate in Iowa to name the philosopher or thinker who most influenced him, answered, ''Christ, because he changed my heart.''

''He was so enthusiastic and expressive - it was like somebody had read out his lottery ticket,'' said Reed, insisting the answer was sincere and heartfelt, and not political. ''Bush's faith commitment is real, and it brought stability, meaning, and an extraordinary change to his life.''

Bush often relates how a walk and conversation with evangelist Billy Graham at Bush's parents' home in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1985, started him on a journey to renew his Christian faith, accept Jesus, and turn around a life of too much partying and drinking. He went back to Texas, joined a men's Bible study group, became active in an evangelical Methodist church, began reading Scripture every day, and turned to prayer and meditation. A few months later, he swore off alcohol.

''I had always been a religious person, had regularly attended church, even taught Sunday school, and served as an altar boy,'' Bush wrote in his memoir, ''A Charge to Keep.'' ''But that weekend my faith took on new meaning. It was the beginning of a walk where I would recommit my heart to Jesus Christ.''

Bush, who went to Presbyterian and Episcopal churches as a child, says his faith teaches him humility and how to be a good husband and parent, and he prays for patience and understanding. His political philosophy of ''compassionate conservatism'' is rooted in his Christian values, Bush says, and his proposal to provide federal aid and grants to churches and faith-based charities and make them partners in solving social problems grows out of what he, in the evangelical tradition, calls the ''transforming power of faith.''

Vice President Gore is also a proponent of creating partnerships between faith-based groups and federal programs; he has what Reed says is the same uniquely Southern trait of speaking with fluency and emotion about his religion; and he, too, says he was born again in Jesus. In his junior year at Harvard, Gore says, ''I felt a transformational relationship with my own interpretation of God, and Christ in God.''

Gore's evangelical journey started in the revival tents of Tennessee. Unsettled by his service in Vietnam, Gore's next stop was the liberal Vanderbilt Divinity School for a year of spiritual searching. As adults, Gore and his wife, Tipper, were baptized in a Southern Baptist church outside Washington. Later, his faith was tested when his only sister died of lung cancer and his son, Albert, was nearly killed in a car accident.

In a recent interview on ''60 Minutes,'' Gore said he's not embarrassed to talk of his faith (in fact, he regularly sprinkles his speeches with Biblical imagery, passages of Scripture, and quotes from Mother Teresa), even when some intellectuals disdain it. ''It's the core of my life,'' he said. ''It's the foundation of my other beliefs, my political philosophy.''

The Rev. K. Bruce Miller, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, where Gore worships, believes Gore's promises to aid the poor and protect the environment are Bible-based. ''Psalm 24 - `the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof' - says we don't own this place,'' Miller said. ''When Al Gore talks about stewardship, I believe he is serious about trying to do God's will.''

Republicans Bauer, Forbes, Keyes, and Hatch make Christian values central to their policy agendas, and the debate in Iowa earlier this month illustrated it: Keyes, a Roman Catholic, said that as president, he would push school prayer and preserve family farms. Forbes, an Episcopalian, endorsed vouchers to help parents pay for parochial-school tuition, and he called for a spiritual renewal in America. Bauer, who belongs to an evangelical Bible church, wants students taught creationism and God-fearing judges appointed to the federal bench. All of them, including Hatch, a Mormon, say abortion violates God's law.

Four years ago, when his main issue was the flat tax, Forbes didn't reveal much about his personal life, including his faith. Today, says the wealthy publisher and now-vocal abortion opponent, it's essential information for voters trying to gauge the depth, honesty, and morality of a future president.

''When I was growing up, religion was an ever-present part of our lives, low-key perhaps, but there on a daily basis,'' said Forbes. ''I do believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior. And I believe God created the world.''

His most prayerful times, Forbes recalls, were when his mother was dying of lung cancer and two of his daughters were born prematurely. What he prays for, Forbes said in a telephone call from South Carolina, is ''private, kept between me and my God.''

Bauer, the former head of the Family Research Council and the candidate most openly wooing the Christian conservatives, grew up in a non-Christian home in Newport, Ky., was guided to church by a devout grandmother, committed himself to Jesus as a teenager, and was baptized beside his father, an alcoholic whose faith helped him stay sober for long periods of time. Bauer says he believes in heavenly miracles because ''for a janitor's son to end up as a candidate for president is, in its own way, something of a miracle.''

At home, the Bauers practice what their fundamentalist church preaches. Bauer's wife, Carol, belongs to Mothers in Touch, a group that prays for public schools, teachers, and troubled children. Both of Bauer's college-age daughters have committed to chastity until marriage. Bauer is a Promise Keeper and has attended events sponsored by the Christian men's group.

In the Iowa debate, Bauer and Hatch joined the hallelujah chorus, citing Jesus Christ as the historic figure they most admire. But Keyes, who has made moral conviction the keystone of his candidacy, said he found it ''shocking'' for Bush to reduce Jesus to the secular status of a philosopher.

''I don't admire Christ. I worship him,'' Keyes said on ''Crossfire.'' ''He is the living son of the living God, and he doesn't influence my mind. He shapes, guides, and commands that mind, because he is the sovereign of my will. Jesus Christ was not a `thinker.' He was the word itself.''

As a Mormon, Hatch says the way he lives says more about his love for Jesus than any testimonial. He doesn't smoke or drink, he composes inspirational music, and reads at least 10 pages of the Bible a day. The Utah Republican became a committed Christian at 17, and from age 20 to 22 spent ''the most important two years of my life'' as a church missionary in the Midwest.

Democrat Bradley, no kin to Hatch in political ideology, at one time shared a similar missionary zeal. His mother, an ardent Methodist, ordered him to Sunday school, took him to revivals, and sent him to a summer camp for Christian athletes. Moved by the proselytizing of Fran Tarkenton and other sports idols, the young Bradley was soon giving sermons himself and writing about his faith in Jesus in evangelical journals.

In ''Time Present, Time Past,'' his memoir, Bradley casts doubt on whether he was truly born again when he made a bargain with God as a struggling freshman at Princeton: get him through his first year, Bradley prayed, and he would pay the Lord back. ''I had convinced myself that this was my `personal experience' with Jesus,'' wrote Bradley, a former New Jersey senator and pro basketball star.

Slowly, Bradley broke faith with his fundamentalism because, he said, it was intolerant of debate and insensitive to civil rights. As a Rhodes scholar, he took part in Billy Graham's crusade in London but felt himself falling away. At an Oxford church, he was offended by a preacher defending white rule in the former Rhodesia. ''I walked out, never to return,'' Bradley wrote.

Bradley says in his book that he now ''seeks my own individual faith.'' In his campaign, he refuses to discuss his religion, calling it ''an extremely private matter,'' adding that he respects his rivals for their openness and ''I hope they respect me.''

The Rev. C. Weldon Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, says that as long as religion doesn't become the primary qualification for the presidency, it's healthy for the candidates to make it part of their profile.

''The watchword is caution,'' said Gaddy, a Baptist minister whose group includes Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and was formed as a political counterweight to the Christian Coalition. ''My greatest fear is that declarations about Jesus somehow become a substitute for discussing political and social issues.''

Secular groups, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, have accused candidates of pious pandering and competing to be national preacher rather than president of a pluralistic nation.

''Why all this wringing of hands, for crying out loud,'' said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the nonprofit Ethics and Policy Center. ''Not one of these men is saying, `I have Christ in my heart, therefore I will create a theocracy.' They know we live in a pluralistic society, but they are also sincere in their faith.''