In Sunday’s Democratic presidential candidate debate on ABC, the most interesting yet least-publicized exchange came in the form of the candidates’ responses to a question on religion.
As wildly unpopular as President Bush now is, with approval ratings dipping into the high 20s, it should be obvious his most disastrous policy decisions were driven either by his zeal to appeal to the religious right or by his innate belief (and those of some of his advisers) that his policies were sanctioned by God.
In this observer’s humble opinion, a national leader’s belief that his (or her) policies are underwritten by God should be viewed in the same ominous light as a cross on fire. Look at those who have claimed “God’s will” as cover for violent, inexcusable bloodshed and mayhem: the Crusaders, militant Jihadists and the Taliban. Bush’s faith-based style of leadership — to wit, his 2000 campaign statement that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher — caused the president and members of his administration to believe they were acting with God’s approval to invade Iraq, a decision imposing widespread and long-term costs of all sorts on the U.S. military and on taxpayers.
On a less costly but equally outrageous level, some of Bush’s appointees used religion to distort science (on global warming) and reverse federally subsidized education policy (funding abstinence-only sex education) to a bygone era.
This is not to criticize all of the country leaders’ personal religious beliefs. But he/she leads a country backward when using religious belief as a barometer for government decision-making. Bush has allowed religion to creep into law to an extent not witnessed since World War II, if not since the birth of this nation. If the Democrats are going to make “running against Bush” a hallmark of the ’08 campaign, they must promise to rebuild the now-wrecked wall between church and state. They must also pledge to keep their own religious beliefs out of government policy-making.
Dismayingly, Sunday’s debate showed some Democratic front-runners still feel the need to cater to the religious right.
This was obvious in some of their responses to a debate-watcher from Utah who wrote in to the candidates: “My question is to understand each candidate’s view of a personal God. Do they believe that, through the power of prayer, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s response displayed her prototypical propensity to put licked finger to the wind, rather than to say what she thinks. This is her signature flaw as a candidate. She can only say what her advisers view as safe and offensive to no one. By so doing, she fails to inspire confidence in anyone. Her answer to the question was, “I am very dependent on my faith and prayer is a big part of that.”
Sen. Chris Dodd mimicked Clinton’s pabulumlike response, saying, “The power of prayer I think is important to all of us. I hope it is, recognizing that we don’t do anything without his approval.”
Former Sen. John Edwards was the first in the group to break out of safe mode and into reality. He explained that he had prayed before his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and before his son died. No amount of prayer prevented those personal disasters. He added, “I think it is enormously important to look to God — and, in my case, Christ — for guidance and for wisdom. But I don’t think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer.” With those words, Edwards showed he is a deeply religious man, so confident in the power of his convictions that he can separate them from his role as a government official. He keeps those convictions where they belong: in the personal realm and reality-based.
Space constrictions preclude me from parsing through all of the candidates’ responses. In sum, Sen. Barack Obama’s was entirely uninspiring, as were Sen. Joseph Biden’s and those of almost all the rest of the candidates. But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s was surprisingly impressive. He answered, “I pray. I’m a Roman Catholic. My sense of social justice, I believe, comes from being a Roman Catholic. But, in my judgment, prayer is personal. And how I pray and how any American prays, for what reason, is their own decision. And it should be respected.”
Let’s hope the other candidates recognize the courage it took for Richardson to make that statement. No, prayer does not prevent or lessen disaster. It’s not magic: it’s prayer. The power of prayer is deeply personal and prayer should not be used to frame government policy.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)