Kent Bush: Religious faith part of debate

Kent Bush

I always knew that voting records and policy stances were part of presidential debates. But I never knew Sunday school attendance could be a determining factor in whether or not a person became president.

It sounds like the start of a bawdy joke: "A Baptist, a Catholic and a Morman went to a presidential debate and ... ."

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun."

If that sounds familiar, it should. It's from the Bible, specifically Ecclesiastes.

The notion that religion plays a part in politics is certainly nothing new. From ancient times, kings were religious and secular leaders. People seeking religious freedom founded America. Simple logic indicates they would not have sailed across the ocean blue seeking religious freedom if they already had it. Obviously there was a problem that required an ocean voyage and Revolutionary War to resolve. But what did it really resolve?

In 1960, John F. Kennedy had little trouble with most political issues or debates - until his Catholic faith offended protestant voters. He told a group of ministers during the election, "I do not speak for my church on public matters - and the church does not speak for me."

But to believe that a candidate's religion is not important is shortsighted.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is."

Your religion affects you. Whether you hold tightly to tenets of a religion or intentionally keep a distance from all religious things, that decision affects the type of person you are and how you see the world.

Gandhi believed religion was positive until it became sectarian. Nothing drives beliefs and ideas to extremes like politics.

A casual belief becomes a fundamental doctrine in the bright light of politics. That is why candidates are facing questions about religious faith at almost every major debate. That inquisition leads them to formalize and ossify their beliefs. They have to address the question infallibly many times during the race. There is no room for them to misstate a syllable without their faith being questioned.

Those answers drive voters to and from candidates like sheep seeking a better patch of grass.

Religion is obviously one of the factors you should use when deciding which candidate will best represent your views. But don't expect religion to be the driving force of every decision a politician makes.

After all, Brad Henry is a practicing Southern Baptist and was the first Governor in Oklahoma history to be able to institute a lottery over the objections of the leaders of the very church he attends. Those who voted for Henry because he was Southern Baptist were likely disappointed in their decision.

Supporting Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani based only on the faith they espouse would probably be equally disappointing.

As George Mitchell, a former senator from Maine, once said, "Although he's regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics."

Religious faith is part of the debate. But don't let the teaching a candidate hears one morning a week keep you from finding out how he puts it into practice on the other six.

Kent Bush is publisher of the Augusta (Kan.) Gazette