WASHINGTON (ABP) — The major Democratic candidates for president support faith influencing public policy but differ with President Bush on the role of religious groups in public life, according to a series of interviews conducted by an advocacy group.
The Washington-based Interfaith Alliance requested brief interviews on matters of faith and politics with all of the major 2004 presidential candidates. So far, Bush and Al Sharpton are the only ones who have not yet responded to the interview requests. The other candidates' responses — published on the organization's website — reveal that the Democrats are strongly supportive of church-state separation and oppose Bush on one of the most prominent church-state issues of the day.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich all expressed opposition to Bush's “faith-based initiative.” That plan would expand the government's ability to fund social services through churches and other deeply religious organizations.
Although Bush has been unable to push the plan through Congress, he has signed several executive orders achieving essentially the same goals. However, such administrative directives could be undone by future presidents.
When asked about his views on Bush's policies on religious charities, front-runner Kerry, a Catholic, said, “I thought they reached too far.” The senator added that government should fund some religious social-service efforts, but “draw the line” at any funding of programs that include calls for clients to practice a particular religious faith. “The government shouldn't be supporting those things that are actually the proselytizing of the faith,” he said.
Dean, a Congregationalist, went further in his criticism of the initiative, lambasting provisions that Bush and his congressional allies have attempted to include in several spending bills that would allow religious organizations receiving federal dollars to discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring practices.
“I think I wouldn't want to discard the faith-based initiative in [its] entirety but I think a bright line has to be drawn that if an agency or if an organization gets money, they cannot discriminate in their hiring by religion, sexual orientation, or any other category,” Dean said.
Even Lieberman, who was an early supporter of Bush's idea in Congress, criticized the way his colleagues in the House ended up handling it. “In one of the versions that originally passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the faith-based initiative, which actually began under President Clinton, was used as an excuse to have the federal government override anti-discrimination laws at the state and local levels,” he said. “That was wrong.”
All of the responding candidates expressed strong support for the separation of church and state and the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment. Clark, who was raised Baptist but converted to Catholicism and now attends a Presbyterian church, even gave a biblical reference for his support.
Clark described the story of Jesus and the Pharisees from Mark 12.
“It's the scene where Jesus is debating with the Pharisees and they're accusing him of doing something that dishonors and is disrespectful to Caesar and he says, 'Bring me a coin.' And they bring him the coin. He says, 'Whose face is on the coin?' They say, 'Caesar.' He says, 'Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, render unto God that which is God's,'” Clark said. “That's the start of the doctrine of the separation of church and state.”
Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, said the separation implicit in the First Amendment's religion clauses has made America “the most religiously tolerant people in the world.” He told the story of his grandmother, who immigrated to the United States.
“I never met a more patriotic American than my grandmother, because she experienced life on the other side,” Lieberman said. “She lived in central Europe at the time when being Jewish was a cause for harassment, bigotry, or worse. So when she came to the United States of America and she could walk to synagogue on a Saturday and her Christian neighbors would say to her, 'Good Sabbath, Mrs. Manger,' well, she felt that she had gone to heaven.”
The organization's website, www.interfaithalliance.org, makes the interviews available in streaming-video and audio-only form. It also provides transcripts of the interviews.