WASHINGTON (BP)–Candidates for the White House and other offices should be free to say how their religious beliefs impact them but should not be expected to explain the specifics of their faith, Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land said at a forum on religion in the 2008 election.
Appearing with five other panelists, Land said there needs to be a “careful distinction” in how candidates address their faith. They should be free to talk about how their beliefs influence their values and performance, “but they shouldn’t either be asked to be or volunteer to be a spokesperson for their faith tradition, in other words talking about the particulars of their faith,” said the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“I think to go into the particular beliefs of a particular faith and to try to grill a candidate on that is an intrusion into his personal faith,” Land said. “I think what we want to know in a campaign is how that person’s faith impacts them.
“I think that a candidate ought to talk about his faith to the extent he’s comfortable talking about his faith or she’s comfortable talking about her faith, and do so as a way of introducing themselves … if they choose to,” he said, adding that voters will decide on candidates who decide not to talk about their faith.
“But you shouldn’t talk about it if it’s not comfortable, and you shouldn’t try to fake it,” Land said. “I mean the infamous example is [2004 Democratic candidate] Howard Dean, who said that his favorite New Testament book was Job.”
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, suggested a challenge in this election “is the cultural requirement, it seems to me, that people talk about their faith, because, for many Catholics, talking about our faith was not what we did, and many Episcopalians, I think, didn’t talk about their faith, whereas the evangelical community does talk about their faith…. [O]ne of the cultural challenges is to get people to understand one can be a faithful person and not act and talk in the same way, which has been difficult.”
Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, acknowledged religion is being discussed in this year’s presidential campaign -– in which Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are the leading candidates -– but questioned whether it is “being talked about as religion or as political strategy.”
“Religion retains its integrity when it gets treated as religion,” Gaddy said. “When religion becomes a part of political strategy, it loses its integrity, and it compromises the spirit of democracy.”
Both Land and Gaddy pointed to a speech by the late President John F. Kennedy as an example of how a candidate should handle religion in a campaign. A Roman Catholic, Kennedy made what became a famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association when he was running for president in 1960.
Land said he thinks it “was almost a word-perfect speech in terms of balance.” Kennedy “didn’t spend one sentence trying to define his faith. He defended the right of someone from his faith” to seek office.
“He said, ‘I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president,'” Land said in recalling the speech. “Then he went on to say, ‘My faith informs my conscience. I’ll be guided by my conscience in making decisions about what’s best for the country. And I’m not going to deny my faith in order to win this office, and it would be a travesty if I were asked to.'”
Near the end of his speech, Kennedy said, as Gaddy recalled it, “If at any time my conscience comes in conflict with my responsibility to defend the Constitution, I will resign the office.”
Gaddy said, “I think every presidential candidate ought to be able to answer that question for the good of our Constitution and for the preservation of our freedom.”
Panelists returned at various times during the nearly two-hour discussion to a much-discussed topic of the campaign — Barack Obama’s longtime membership in a Chicago church where the pastor, Jeremiah Wright, preached black liberation theology and made controversial comments about America. Although he initially defended his former pastor, Obama eventually denounced Wright’s remarks and resigned his membership in the church after an April speech by Wright at the National Press Club.
The two most conservative members of the panel -– Land and Keith Pavlischek, senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center -– had different opinions on who threw whom “under the bus” in the Obama-Wright relationship.
“What does this say about Barack Obama?” Pavlischek asked. “[H]e took this guy, who was his spiritual mentor for 20 years … and basically threw him under the bus, as the metaphor goes, and now [has] bailed out of the church. Why? For political expediency…. It becomes purely a Machiavellian, expedient move. Does anybody here think that Barack Obama and his family would have resigned from that church had he not been a candidate?”
Land said, “Jeremiah Wright’s performance at the National Press Club was a disgrace. And to me the most disgraceful thing about it was he threw his parishioner under the bus. I mean, Barack Obama tried to be loyal to this guy. I felt like Barack Obama was used by Jeremiah Wright.
“Jeremiah Wright said, ‘Well, he just said what politicians have to say to get elected.’ He questioned Barack Obama’s integrity. He questioned his honesty,” Land said. “With a shepherd like that, who needs wolves?”
The other panelists were Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society and Kenyatta Gilbert, assistant professor at Howard University School of Divinity.
The June 4 panel discussion, which took place at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, was taped for broadcast on “Interfaith Voices,” a weekly program on WAMU, a public radio station in the area. The edited broadcast and entire, unedited forum are both available online at http://interfaithradio.org/audio.
Tom Strode is Baptist Press’ Washington bureau chief.