When the Personal Shouldn't Be Political

By GARY HART

New York Times

November 8, 2004

Kittredge, Colo. - If America has entered one of its periodic eras of religious revival and if that revival is having the profound impact on politics that is now presumed, to participate in a discussion of "faith" one must qualify oneself.

I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical denomination founded a century ago as an offshoot of American Methodism, which, the church founders believed, had become too liberal. I graduated from Bethany Nazarene College, where I met and married my wife, who was also brought up in the church. I then graduated from the Yale Divinity School as preparation for a life of teaching religion and philosophy.

The Nazarene Church abhorred drinking, smoking, dancing, movies and female adornment, believed in salvation through being "born again" and in sanctification as a second act of grace, and resisted most popular culture as the devil's work. In doctrine and practice, it was much more evangelical than fundamentalist.

A neglected thread of church doctrine was the social gospel of John and Charles Wesley, the great reformers of late 18th-century Methodism. The Wesley brothers preached salvation through grace but also preached the duty of Christians, based solidly on Jesus' teachings, to minister to those less fortunate. My political philosophy springs directly from Jesus' teachings and is the reason I became active in the Democratic Party. Finally, in the qualification-to-speak category, I will seek to pre-empt the ad hominem disqualifiers. I am a sinner. I only ask for the same degree of forgiveness from my many critics that they were willing to grant George W. Bush for his transgressions.

As a candidate for public office, I chose not to place my beliefs in the center of my appeal for support because I am also a Jeffersonian; that is to say, I believe that one's religious beliefs - though they will and should affect one's outlook on public policy and life - are personal and that America is a secular, not a theocratic, republic. Because of this, it should concern us that declarations of "faith" are quickly becoming a condition for seeking public office.

Declarations of "faith" are abstractions that permit both voters and candidates to fill in the blanks with their own religious beliefs. There are two dangers here. One is the merging of church and state. The other is rank hypocrisy. Having claimed moral authority to achieve political victory, religious conservatives should be very careful, in their administration of the public trust, to live up to the standards they have claimed for themselves. They should also be called upon to address the teachings of Jesus and the prophets concerning care for the poor, the barriers that wealth presents to entering heaven, the blessings on the peacemakers, and the belief that no person should be left behind.

If we are to insert "faith" into the public dialogue more directly and assertively, let's not be selective. Let's go all the way. Let's not just define "faith" in terms of the law and judgment; let's define it also in terms of love, caring, forgiveness. Compassionate conservatives can believe social ills should be addressed by charity and the private sector; liberals can believe that the government has a role to play in correcting social injustice. But both can agree that human need, poverty, homelessness, illiteracy and sickness must be addressed. Liberals are not against religion. They are against hypocrisy, exclusion and judgmentalism. They resist the notion that one side or the other possesses "the truth" to the exclusion of others. There is a great difference between Cotton Mather and John Wesley.

There is also the disturbing tendency to insert theocratic principles into the vision of America's role in the world. There is evil in the world. Nowhere in our Constitution or founding documents is there support for the proposition that the United States was given a special dispensation to eliminate it. Surely Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator. But there are quite a few of those still around and no one is advocating eliminating them. Neither Washington, Adams, Madison nor Jefferson saw America as the world's avenging angel. Any notion of going abroad seeking demons to destroy concerned them above all else. Mr. Bush's venture into crusaderism frightened not only Muslims, it also frightened a very large number of Americans with a sense of their own history.

The religions of Abraham all teach a sense of personal and collective humility. It was a note briefly struck very early by Mr. Bush and largely abandoned thereafter. It would be well for those in the second Bush term to ponder that attribute. Whether Bush supporters care or not, people around the world now see America as arrogant, self-righteous and superior. These are not qualities of any traditional faith I am aware of.

If faith now drives our politics, at the very least let's make it a faith of inclusion, genuine compassion, humility, justice and accountability. In the words of the prophet Micah: "He hath shown thee, O man, what is good. What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" And, instead of "O man," let's insert "O America."

Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator from Colorado, is the author, most recently, of"The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the 21st Century.''