Even before the current crop of presidential hopefuls admitted they were running for office, they began delivering religious messages. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole told audiences how they came to faith. Gary Bauer, whose faith commitment was well known, was provoked by the Littleton tragedy (wrote Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard) to abandon his plan to avoid political speech about God. And Al Gore stopped by a Salvation Army facility to issue a public call for "a new partnership" between government and "faith-based organizations."

The nattering classes could not keep quiet: Harvard's Elaine Kamarck, a senior Gore adviser, told the Boston Globe his comments were part of a campaign to "take God back" for the Democrats in 2000. Hannah Rosin explained to Washington Post readers how Bush's testimony made him "pre-forgiven" for whatever might later be revealed about his past life. And novelist and biographer A. N. Wilson took up his antireligion cudgel on the pages of the New York Times.

Exotic faith?

None of the candidates' statements were odd or offbeat. They all merely said what believers have long said to other believers about being once lost and now found, and about the relevance of belief in God to moral improvement. Nevertheless, noted William McGurn in the National Review, "While the denominational affiliations of Mrs. Dole, Gore, Bush, and Bauer are well within the American mainstream, their every utterance about faith is treated by the press as exotic, outside the pale."

Wilson, author of a scurrilous 1992 book on Jesus, did not see candidate religion as normal. He called it "a strange prospect that the United States, whose Constitution so carefully separated the roles of church and state … should have politicians of both parties sound as if they would not be uncomfortable in an evangelical theocracy."

In his commentary, Wilson blended animus with ink: Gore had linked the decency of the American people with their high level of religious belief. Wilson huffed that he felt "somewhat aghast" that Gore "might think the decency of the American idea stems singly from its religious commitment."

"Historically speaking, the opposite was the case," Wilson continued, referring to the Founding Fathers' fears of established churches and the "deadly consequences" of the European wars of religion. But surely he has read Tocqueville, who argued that America's pervasive religiosity was indispensable in tempering self-interest in an egalitarian society.

One interesting interlude in the ongoing discussion of church and state concerns the deist Thomas Jefferson, often portrayed as opposed to any connection between government and religion. Indeed, it was Jefferson's New Year's Day 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists that gave us the phrase "wall of separation," which has been used both by the Supreme Court and militant secularists to promote the de-religionizing of the remotest corners of American society touched by some tentacle of government.

Recent research on Jefferson's letter (including the use of FBI computers to read beneath the ink he used to scratch out some of his original words) has showed that Jefferson was not so much hostile to government engagement with religion as he was to federal sponsorship of religion. Reasoning from Jefferson's scratched-out words, Library of Congress archive director James Hutson has argued that this letter "was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles." Instead, it was a political document designed not to offend the strict separationists while leaving open tacit approval of state-sponsored religious exercises. While Jefferson thought federal sponsorship of a day of prayer and thanksgiving was inappropriate, as a state governor, he himself called for such observances.

Perfect testimonies

The bias of critics like Wilson can hardly claim the authority of the Founding Fathers. But the prudential question remains: Should candidates witness while they stump? Bush and Dole, in particular, writes Rosin, "have perfected what in evangelical circles is known as a testimony." She notes religious audiences are now being told more about how candidates came to belief than what they believe.

What is the value of such testimony? Several evangelical political thinkers told CT it is unwise. Keith Pavlischek of the Center for Public Justice called it "harmful," noting that it "reduces the discussion of substantive issues." Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals called the use of "canned, repetitive testimonies … a true reductionism for people who know the weight and substance of faith." Cizik cautioned against voting for someone "because they have a testimony that is similar to our own." And Pavlischek argued that such spiritual talk distracts from what political stewardship actually requires: "thinking responsibly about the purpose of government: what it can do, what it should do."

What really counts? Policy or piety? Rosin interviewed a board member of an influential evangelical organization who downplayed the importance of, for example, a candidate's position on abortion in comparison to that candidate's personal faith. "That's the foundation," said this evangelical leader. "Everything starts there."

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After Monicagate, Americans are hungry for integrity and hopeful that frank talk about a candidate's spiritual history will reveal trustworthy presidential timber. Because of the widespread fallacy that religion ought to be silent in public discourse, we are pleased that these candidates talk with such ease about God and the way faith in him can transform lives. And so we walk a tightrope, encouraging religious voices (including candidates' voices) in the public sphere, while at the same time cautioning citizens against voting for candidates merely because their testimonies ring true. Such impulses can too easily elect someone whose language feels familiar rather than someone whose policies are apt prescriptions for America's ills.

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