When it Comes to Faith, Partisan Lines are Blurring

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It is a political world turned upside down. Republicans running away from religion and Democrats acting like evangelists.

Last night in New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidates were long on conservatism and short on compassion. On immigration, on Iraq, on virtually every issue, the consensus was that America hasn't been tough enough. No compassion for anyone — particularly those 12 million Americans who got here illegally.

When it came to the hungry — or, more precisely, those the Bush Administration has categorized as "food insecure" — there was silence. So, too, on issues like poverty and youth violence and the epidemic of the uninsured. There was, in short, no evidence of the compassionate conservatism George W. Bush once promised would be his governing philosophy.

And Jesus made only the briefest appearance — first from Wolf Blitzer's lips in a question to Rudolph Giuliani and then from Mormon Gov. Mitt Romney, who declared his love for Jesus.

Romney doesn't really want an in-depth examination of his Mormon faith. Ex-mayor Giuliani certainly doesn't want to explain his penchant for marrying in a religious context. And Sen. John McCain, who once called religious right leaders "agents of intolerance", isn't leaping at the chance to play pastor, either.

How differently the Democrats are behaving. Monday night, the progressive religious organization Sojourners hosted the three leading Democratic presidential candidates at a forum on "faith, values, and poverty." It was a Jesus fair.

John Edwards talked about how his faith in Jesus saved his life after the death of his son. Sen. Barack Obama, playing theologian, talked about what Jesus required of men and women today. And Sen. Hillary Clinton adopted the use of Republican religious "code words" when talking about her faith. She spoke of "witness" and "prayer warriors" even as she suggested that her faith in Jesus is what gave her the strength to save her marriage despite the ease with which she might have divorced Bill Clinton after his adultery.

So what are we to make of this odd political situation? Well, the Democrats have clearly decided that George W. Bush's example of talking openly about the substance of his religious faith is the way to go. In 2000 and again in 2004, Bush ran as virtually a "pastor-in-chief" when talking to Christian audiences. He made it seem that the religious should vote for him simply because of his faith. The Democrats, longing for religious votes, are gambling that they can do the same.

Republicans, meanwhile, terrified of being too closely identified with Bush, are doing all they can to run away from him. One of the ways they are doing that is by muting any religion talk. They are trying to return to hard-core conservatism devoid of any of Bush's faith or "compassion" talk.

What an odd political legacy President Bush is beginning to leave — Democrats as evangelists and Republicans running scared from faith.

David Kuo is the author of "Tempting Faith" and the former deputy director of the office of faith-based community initiatives in the Bush administration.



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