Toward the end of June, David Brooks, one of the two conservative columnists who appear regularly on the op-ed page of The New York Times, did a piece entitled, “A Matter of Faith,” in which he proposed that the majority of Americans want their presidents and presidential candidates to talk openly about their religious faith.
“Many people,” Brooks wrote, “just want to know that their leader, like them, is in the fellowship of believers. Their president doesn’t have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God.”
He pointed out that Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, “doesn’t seem to get this,” nor do many of the people running his party or the campaign. Brooks cited a recent Time magazine poll that indicated that only 7 percent of Americans feel that Kerry is a man of strong religious faith — a number he called “catastrophic.”
While it is true that Americans are among the world’s most vocally “religious” people — the great majority say they believe in God and another large percentage attend religious services regularly — it is impossible to measure the spiritual depth and theological rigor of those convictions.
And while many may tell pollsters that they themselves are religious and would like their political leaders to be also, the great majority, church-goers and nonchurch-goers alike, are opposed to the intrusion of religion in the political order.
Another recent Time magazine poll, for example, found that some 70 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose the attempts of some of their bishops to influence the way Catholics will vote in the November elections, and 73 percent disagreed with the view that Sen. Kerry should be denied Communion because of his pro-choice views.
What David Brooks failed to recognize is that, unlike evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Protestants and a small percentage of Catholics who have recently adopted some of those same Protestant ways, Catholics and mainline Protestants do not wear their religious faith on their sleeves, so to speak.
It is not that they are secretive about their religious affiliation or afraid to be known as regular church-goers, but it is simply not in their nature to be publicly demonstrative about their faith. They try to live it at home, at work and in their daily lives, but they are not comfortable calling attention to their efforts and the spiritual motivation behind them.
When one thinks of the U.S. presidents of the past 70 years, only three of the 12 — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — have been open about their personal religious convictions and sentiments. Not surprisingly, each embraces a broadly evangelical type of Christian faith. Two are Southern Baptists, and the other a “born-again” Methodist.
Using the same yardstick, compare and contrast those three presidents with the other nine: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the current President’s father.
Not even the most conservative of these presidents, Ronald Reagan, was as open about his religious faith as Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush. Reagan almost never attended religious services, not even in the privacy and security of the White House, and his son, Ron Jr., even made a point of this when speaking at his father’s burial in June. Indeed, his comments were interpreted by most observers as a not-so-subtle dig at the current president.
President Bush’s own father, the 41st president, was actually as low-key as Sen. Kerry in the manifestation of his religious faith. Roman Catholics and Episcopalians have a lot in common in that regard.
David Brooks was wrong, therefore, in suggesting that only “the secular left” would have a major problem with Sen. Kerry’s becoming more vocal and demonstrative about his Catholic faith. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could hardly be lumped together in that category.
As it is, Sen. Kerry attends Mass regularly — and is often photographed entering or leaving church-and receives Communion as well.
It is the policy of the overwhelming number of dioceses and parishes around the country not to deny Communion to anyone who approaches the altar. Most bishops and priests believe that this is not the appropriate time or circumstance for negotiating the state of the communicant’s soul.
One suspects that those for whom the religiosity of candidates will be a determining factor in how they will vote in November have already decided to vote for President Bush.
However, for the great majority — Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike — religion is not likely to make any difference at all.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.