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A Darker Side of Faith

Unlike many of my fellow liberals, I haven't been terribly concerned about President Bush's deeply conservative religious inclinations. (Attorney General Ashcroft's, on the other hand, give me the screaming willies.) He and I have different interpretations of what Christianity calls us to -- especially reagarding social justice in the here-and-now world. But having deeply held, even fundamentalist, religious beliefs isn't an automatic warning bell for me. It's what you do with those beliefs, and what the content of those personal beliefs implies about how you'll govern.

Here's one of my tests: Do you recognize that Americans come from all faiths -- Protestant, Catholic, pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist or none at all? If you disagree with those faiths, can you still respect and defend the right of people to follow them?

Bush gets the language right sometimes. He said in his March 30, 2002, radio address, "Americans practice different faiths in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. And many good people practice no faith at all." And he told the 2002 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting that

Baptists have had an extraordinary influence on American history. They were among the earliest champions of religious tolerance and freedom. Baptists have long upheld the ideal of a free church in a free state. And from the beginning, they believed that forcing a person to worship against his will violated the principles of both Christianity and civility.... And Baptists understood the deep truth of what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., said: "The church is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state."

He also tells the Southern Baptists, "Yet, you have never believed in separating religious faith from political life. Baptists believe as America's founders did: that religious faith is the moral anchor of American life." For people outside the Judeo-Christian majority, this is more unsettling -- but it's an honest statement of belief that doesn't necessarily mean a threat -- just a disagreement.

But actions frequently speak louder than words. I just read Howard Fineman's latest cover story for Newsweek. (Fineman seems to "get" Bush's psychology; see also my previously-linked entry.) Just when I'm fantasizing asking Bush how he reconciles his unshakeable faith in Christ with the need to defend all Americans' right to faith, I stumble over this paragraph:

The Bush campaign conducted its more-controversial outreach below radar, via letters and e-mail. Only once was it forced to reach out in a raw public way. After John McCain won the New Hampshire primary, Bush made his infamous visit to South Carolina's Bob Jones University, the ultrafundamentalist and officially anti-Roman Catholic school. Strategists were opaque in public, unapologetic behind the scenes. "We had to send a message -- fast -- and sending him there was the only way to do it," said one top Bush operative at the time. "It was a risk we had to take." Bush won.

Suddenly I feel like I know the answer, without having to ask.


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