Where stands the pious politician?

In the US inaugural show set for this weekend, religion is due to take centre stage. As usual, an invocation preceding the inaugural address will be given by a Baptist Graham. Not Billy Graham this time - the evangelical leader has a heart problem - but his son, the crusading Franklin Graham. Then Mr Bush will doubtless take a moment during his grand speech to make reference to his own spiritual odyssey, which took an important turn when, at age 39, he became a practising Methodist.

As for churchgoing, the new president plans two sessions of worship. Rather than seeking out a Methodist House of God, he will here revert to the Bush clan's preferred affiliation, Episcopalianism. There are plans to attend St John's Episcopal Church before the inauguration on Saturday, and to pay a visit to the (Episcopalian) National Cathedral, formally known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, come Sunday.

That politicians believe such displays of piety will win them political support is obvious. Mr Bush may feel his faith sincerely, but he has also made a calculated political estimate that his faith and turnaround from alcoholism is a vote-getter. Equally calculated was Vice President Al Gore's selection of the ostentatiously religious Senator Joe Lieberman as a campaign running mate. Both candidates consciously rejected the more secular American political life of the 1960s and 1970s.

Exactly what Americans feel about a more religious life for their nation, though, is less clear. Even murkier is their view on where politicians and government fit into spiritual life. Do citizens long for statesmen who are privately religious, but confine expression of religion to personal lives? Or do they want leaders who find new ways to introduce religion into the public sector?

Fortunately, the beginning of an answer to such mysteries is available in a new study published this month by the nonprofit group Public Agenda for the Pew Charitable Trust. In a nationwide telephone survey conducted in November, Public Agenda posed more than 100 questions about religion to about 1,500 Americans.

On the question of whether Americans want religion to play a greater role in American life, the answer is a resounding "yes". Public Agenda found that 87 per cent of Americans believe that volunteer and charity work (something they support) would increase if more Americans became deeply religious. An impressive eight in 10 Americans also believe that the spread of serious religious faith would cut crime, as well as help parents do a better job raising children. As for the disadvantages typically associated with greater faith, Americans are not concerned about them: only one in four, for example, believe that women would lose personal freedoms in a more seriously religious country.

On the question of the religious politician, voters are also receptive. A little more than half say they prefer to vote for a candidate who "draws emotional comfort and strength from religion"; just over half don't like the sound of an atheist candidate.

Finally, 44 per cent supported an increased role for faith-based charities in the government sector - even if those groups promoted religious messages. An additional 23 per cent liked the idea, but only if the charities stayed away from the religious theme. One reason for such support is probably that the device for funding such charities would normally be tax breaks - in other words that government would probably not pay the religious entities directly.

And that is about as far as voters go. Indeed, most of them are fairly vehement about keeping religion outside the public sector.

They express, for example, a distinct distaste at the notion that a lawmaker would impose his private religious views on his constituency. Only one in four say they would vote for a candidate who "always votes for legislation according to his or her religion".

More to the point, especially for a Bush administration expecting to nominate a number of Supreme Court justices, US citizens make clear that they want their elected officials to be ready to compromise with others who believe differently.

On the question of gay rights, for example, six in 10 of those polled said that officials must not base their policy choices or votes on their religious views, but must strike a balance in negotiations with colleagues. The same share of voters sought accommodation on another controversial issue: the death penalty. There was even a strong desire for compromise on abortion, the hottest button issue of them all.

And, tellingly, voters didn't seem to care which sort of religion their leaders practised as long as they practised something. A full two-thirds of those polled couldn't name Mr Gore's or Mr Bush's religious affiliation.

Not all citizens, of course, share the view that religion should not intrude in other spheres. Unlike other groups, Evangelical Christians tend to believe "that deeply religious people should spread the word of God whenever they can". Jews are perhaps the wariest of an increase in religion in national life, supporting the proposition that "even in America, Jews have to be on guard because anti-Semitism could always become a powerful force here". More than half of the rest of the nation shares this view.

Nonreligious Americans likewise fear decreased tolerance should there be a greater role for faith.

All of which suggests that this weekend's display will go over just fine with citizens. But come Monday, lawmakers may want to drop the sermonising and get down to work.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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