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The Religion Gap presents both Bush and Kerry with special challenges. Kerry not only has to walk a line between his personal faith--that of the 11-year-old altar boy who used to write his sister to remind her to say her prayers--and the more secular leanings of his core voters. He also faces a small squad of conservative Catholic bishops who say they would refuse to serve Communion to politicians who, like Kerry, reject the church's teachings on issues such as abortion. One has gone so far as to suggest that any unrepentant Catholic who even votes for such a candidate should refrain from taking Communion (see following story).
For Bush, who promised to unite the nation after years of bitter partisan battle, the choices are also stark. As the country splits between the faithful and the secular, how does he continue to inspire the white Evangelicals, who support him in overwhelming numbers, while not alienating the independents or further inflaming the Democrats so that their turnout rises as well? And more important than the politics is the policy. How, for instance, does a devout President rally a country against an enemy that claims to fight in God's name without implying that this is a Holy War? "For every person who likes the way he talks about his faith and America, there's another who's repulsed by it," observes Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
All of which raises the question, Just what is the right amount of piety in the Oval Office? Americans have shown they want a believer in the White House, but how much do they care about what he believes in? Do they want faith to affect policy? Or do they just share a conviction, as Presidents all through history have affirmed, that the Oval Office is a lonely and humbling place whose occupants need all the help they can get.
BUSH'S RELIGIOUS JOURNEY
America is among the most religious, and the most religiously diverse, countries on earth, and you can argue that those two things go together. Competition keeps old faiths fresh and new ones growing, and the freedom to choose among them is etched in constitutional stone. So in a nation where 19 in 20 people say they believe in God and nearly two-thirds call religion very important in their lives, there arises a sprawling market of creeds and cults and congregations in which people like to shop. The Dalai Lama's books are best sellers; there are Metaphysical Episcopalians and Unitarian Universalist Pagans and, a bit further down the road, the Nudist Christian Church of the Blessed Virgin Jesus.
Politicians tend to campaign somewhere in mid-mainstream. In the past election, voters could choose between a candidate who called himself born again, argued for more federal funding for faith-based programs and promised to consider in policymaking the pop mantra "WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?" That candidate was Al Gore. Or they could vote for Bush, who was born to East Coast Episcopalian parents, was sent to Presbyterian Sunday school in Texas, converted when he married a Methodist, and was renewed in faith thanks to the evangelical witness of Billy Graham--a fairly typical American spiritual journey.