Column: Religion and politics don't mix - for a good reason

What I really want to know today is whether God is a Democrat or a Republican. If we listen to Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, God is a Democrat; but if we listen to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, He's a Republican.

Frankly, I wish all four politicians would shut up and keep their religious views to themselves.

I agree with Christian Science Monitor columnist Pat M. Holt, who wrote that "the presidential campaign is veering in a disturbing direction over how the candidates are handling religion, a subject which ought not to be in the campaign at all." He added that "freedom of religion necessarily means freedom from religion" in public life.

Democrats lambasted Gov. Bush when he talked about his born-again Christian faith, when he visited fundamentalist Bob Jones University and for his ties to the right-wing Christian Coalition and Moral Majority. But when Sen. Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate in history on a major party ticket, began injecting religion into his campaign appearances, the Democrats were silent.

In the interest of fairness, however, we should apply the same standards to all candidates when it comes to politics and religion. And in my opinion, less is better.

In recent weeks, Bush and Lieberman have continued to pound away at religious themes. "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division," Bush told the annual convention of B'nai B'rith in late August. He has also emphasized the role of faith-based organizations in his concept of "compassionate conservatism."

For his part, Lieberman called for "a constitutional place for faith in our public life" in a speech to an African-American church congregation, urging his listeners to "reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation to God and God's purpose" and reminding them that "we are citizens of the same awesome God." A Democratic campaign official even went so far as to state that the Democrats are "going to take back God this time."

Although these are noble sentiments by both candidates, we should remember that the U.S. Constitution mandates a separation between church and state for very good reasons.

According to Article VI of the Constitution, "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Apparently, the Founding Fathers recognized the inherent danger of establishing a national religion that would pit Baptists against Catholics or Christians against Muslims.

Indeed, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League was so worried about the church-state issue that its national director, Abraham Foxman, warned that Lieberman's campaign "projects a message of spiritual narrowness that invites theological hatred."

As Samuel G. Freedman wrote in Salon magazine, it is ironic that the words of a fellow Jew rather than those of two born-again Christians, Al Gore and George Bush, "have inspired such tremors among Jewry." He noted that the ADL is more concerned about possible anti-Semitic backlash to Lieberman's remarks than it is about the traditional separation of church and state.

Lieberman is stressing ethics, morality and religion because he's running as an anti-Clinton Democrat. He was one of the few Senate Democrats who had the political courage to publicly condemn President Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

He spoke for me and many other conservative Democrats when he condemned Clinton's disgusting behavior in no uncertain terms after an Easter Sunday that featured a pious morning photo-op on the church steps with his wife and an Oval Office sexual encounter with Ms. Lewinsky that evening. Which is one of the main reasons why Vice President Gore chose Lieberman as his running mate - to distance himself from a morally bankrupt president.

Although I like much of what Lieberman is saying about the need for ethics and morality in government, I get nervous when he starts talking about religion. I don't understand a government that prohibits high school football players from praying before their games but welcomes candidates who wear their religions on their sleeves.

Yale University law professor Stephen L. Carter recognized this dilemma in a New York Times op-ed essay. "When political activists treat the Bible like a dictionary of quotations, choosing the verse to fit the cause instead of the other way around, they are engaging in hypocrisy," he wrote. "(And) when candidates for public office make a public show of piety to win votes, they are violating the Third Commandment (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain)." Amen!

BURNING MAN: And speaking of hypocrisy, 58 percent of males and 56 percent of females surveyed recently by the San Francisco Chronicle admitted to using illegal narcotics at the 1999 Burning Man drugfest in the Nevada desert. But the BLM collected $466,000 in "rent" this year so the agency turned a blind eye to massive federal drug law violations by the Bay Area "save the trees, trash the desert" crowd. I told you so.

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


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