Faith and Politics: Some Politicians say Their Leadership is Steeped in the Spirit

By Vicki Brown

(UMCom) - Every morning before debate began on whether the United States should wage war with Iraq, congressmen and women met to talk and pray.

"We would … just try to obtain some kind of comfort level," says Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., and a United Methodist of the debate before the 2002 vote authorizing war. "We really wanted divine inspiration and divine guidance."

Faith hardly is checked at the door of the nation’s government buildings. But in a world where Islamic militants crash passenger jets into skyscrapers, the nation’s president talks of consulting a "higher father" about war and conservative Catholic bishops refuse communion to a presidential candidate because of his abortion beliefs, officials agree faith is divisive in politics.

"If the Bible is used to try and tell someone they are wrong, that’s not what it’s intended to do," says Rep. Spencer Bachus, a conservative Alabama Republican and Baptist.

Like Berry, Bachus is a member of the bipartisan Faith and Politics Institute, which attempts to provide opportunities for spiritual reflection to members of Congress and their staff - including meetings each morning during debate on the Iraqi war resolution.

Clearly, faith guides in different directions. Bachus and Berry, a conservative Democrat, voted for the resolution while liberal Chicago Democrat Bobby Rush - one of few ministers in Congress - voted no.

"I feel as though the Lord speaks to me against violence of any kind," Rush said.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, says his faith has always played a role in what he does and credits his parents with instilling that faith.

"My parents also taught me the values and beliefs of the Methodist church and there was never any doubt that we would go to Central Avenue Methodist Church every Sunday. This faith and encouragement that they taught me has stayed with me to this day,’’ Lugar says. "I still hold the values that I learned growing up and try to live them out through my faith and my actions. One of the most important aspects for me in politics is the need to be honest and truthful, and this is a value I strive to uphold in everything I do."

Few congressmen and women interviewed by question the heartfelt faith of President Bush, a United Methodist.

"I think his faith is genuine," said Rush, pastor of the Beloved Christian Community Church in Chicago.

Bachus believes many misinterpret Bush’s comments. He sees Bush as a committed Christian who is "calling on God to give him guidance and wisdom, not to say I’m going to war and I want your help."

A president who seeks God’s guidance is fine with most Americans who live in a very Christian culture, said the Rev. James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. But more secular Western Europeans get nervous when they "hear between the lines" the U.S. president say, "God told me what to do," he said.

"Christianity is a faith tradition, not an ironclad rulebook for how to structure a society, particularly a Democratic society," Hudnut-Beumler said.

Former Sen. George McGovern, a bomber pilot during World War II who was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, said when the commander-in-chief implies he’s carrying out God’s will, he freezes debate. McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president who lost to Richard Nixon in 1972, noted that the Pope and the National Council of Churches opposed the war in Iraq.

"God must have been sending mixed messages," McGovern said.

But McGovern adds that "a moral underpinning" is vital to politicians. "I think if every political figure would make an honest effort to stay with the essential teachings of Christ and the Hebrew prophets they’d be all right in politics," he said.

Several congressmen cited the war vote as one they struggled with, but abortion has been a difficult issue for many, too.

Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, a Catholic, is critical of bishops who have said Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee in this year’s presidential election, should not take communion unless he opposes abortion.

"Are those same bishops going to say a person should not take communion if they support the death penalty or an unjust war?" Lampson asks. "I want to have a dialogue, live my faith. I want to work on issues that I learned in my Catholic faith - strengthening family, supporting the issues that I believe Jesus Christ taught."

Lampson does not want to see complex issues painted as black-and-white in the name of religion. "I’m so firmly convinced that if you make abortion illegal, all you’ll do is drive people to find an abortion illegally," he added.

The Rev. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist minister and former six-term congressman from Philadelphia, said his faith helped him understand that issues were not black-and-white. "Most were shades of good and evil," said Edgar, who was the first Democrat in more than 120 years to be elected from the heavily Republican 7th District of Pennsylvania.

Edgar, who is now general secretary of the National Council of Churches, hopes faith will be an issue in this year’s election.

"We’re trying to make it a factor," Edgar said, citing an interfaith voter registration drive - "Let Justice Roll" - aimed at registering and mobilizing poor voters.

"Most political parties talk about the middle class only," Edgar said. "We think both political parties need to be reminded that it’s terrible to have 9 million children without healthcare. … We think the religious community needs to mobilize."

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Vicki Brown is a free-lance writer in Nashville, Tenn

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