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Election-year controversy over expressions of faith caused by cultural divide, Land says

WASHINGTON (BP)–Expressions of faith are not more numerous by presidents and presidential candidates, just more controversial because of a growing divide in American society between the religious and nonreligious, Richard Land said Sept. 9 in Arlington, Va.

The “God talk has been around for a long time,” Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said during a panel discussion of this year’s presidential race sponsored by the First Amendment Center and Youth for Justice held during a Youth for Justice state directors meeting. The discussion was held at the offices of The Freedom Forum, which funds the First Amendment Center. The Department of Justice provides funding for Youth for Justice, a law-related education program.

“The people themselves, if anything, are getting more religious, not less religious,” Land said, citing polls commissioned by the British Broadcasting Co. and the Pew Forum. At the same time, he said, surveys show “there is a growing, pretty rabidly secular segment of the population that is not only nonreligious [but] gets pretty irritated with people who are religious.”

As Yale University law professor Stephen Carter has written, Land said, the legal, social, cultural and religious elites “want to marginalize and trivialize religious faith and make it something that’s purely devotional and purely personal [and] that has no impact on public policy, and I think that that’s why religious expressions have become controversial.”

“It’s not that there are more [religious expressions by public officials and candidates],” Land said. “It’s just that people who are reviewing them and people who are seeking to be the social arbiters are more offended by them” than in the past.

Statements by such former presidents as Woodrow Wilson and John Kennedy provide evidence of a pattern of religious expression in political life, Land said. The speeches of former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in churches during the 1990s and 2000 also demonstrate this is not a new development.

When asked if President George W. Bush had gone too far in talking about his faith, Land contended the current president trails his predecessor in public religious statements.

Through 2003, Bush mentioned Jesus or Christ in 14 separate, public statements, Land said, citing statistics from a new book, “God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life” by Paul Kengor. In Clinton’s eight years in the White House, he mentioned Jesus or Christ 41 times in public statements.

While in office, Clinton said, “Our ministry is to do the work of God here on earth.” If George W. Bush had said that, the “New York Times would have had the vapors,” Land said.

Religious expression by politicians is permissible and is “not a huge problem,” but there are risks, another panelist said.

Such talk risks “alienating people on the basis of their privately held, religious views,” said Julie Segal, president of Civic Action Strategies and former legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. There also can be a problem when religion “is actually kind of a synonym for Christian,” she said.

A candidate should not practice self-censorship but should have the right to express his deeply held beliefs, Land said. He should say his religious faith “is part and parcel of who I am. This will help to explain to you how I will approach these public policy issues,” Land said. “And then it’s up to the American people to decide whether that’s the kind of president that they want.”

Surveys show American voters form a “deeply passionate, deeply skeptical public” on the issue of religion, said Kayla Meltzer Drogosz, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Skepticism is commendable in voters, because “many politicians try to use religion for their own purposes,” Land said.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, moderated the panel discussion.