White House religion -- words and deeds

The more Richard Nixon talked about his faith the more his enemies complained about it.

Critics of the troubled president accused him of hiding behind a smokescreen of "White House religion," which an Associate Press report described as "personalized piety detached from its social demands." Liberal church leaders said Nixon was using Christianity as a shield. Critics said he needed to get some new religious advisers, instead of surrounding himself with clergy who would only tell him what he wanted to hear.

Sound familiar? A quarter of a century later, it was the Religious Right's turn to complain while a president kept talking and talking and talking about forgiveness, sin and grace, rather than facing tough issues of repentance, justice and integrity.

That's the problem with White House religion. What you see is rarely what you get.

It's so much easier to offer positive talk about personal feelings and faith, rather than to answer divisive religious questions about the public square. That was true in Watergate, Fornigate and, now, the Y2K White House race.

"It's all very ironic," said Gabriel Fackre, a theologian in the highly progressive United Church of Christ. "One of the lessons we were supposed to have learned from the Clinton crisis was that a leader's private affairs are not supposed to be very relevant, when it comes to judging him as a public leader. We were not supposed to confuse the personal and the public."

But there's a problem and it's one that haunts Republicans and Democrats. In reality, it's impossible to separate these two spheres of life. "They are distinguishable, but inseparable," said Fackre, a Democrat who edited a controversial volume about the Clinton scandals entitled "Judgment Day at the White House" and recently wrote a sequel called "The Day After."

The "character issue" looms over America's political landscape, even if the candidates are afraid to discuss it with any degree of candor. Instead, the major players are offering variations on the classic "White House religion" formula -- talking warmly about their private faith, while batting away pesky questions about religious issues in public life.

Thus, Gov. George W. Bush keeps giving his testimony, but seems gun-shy when asked to describe how his personal faith is linked to his public convictions. Sen. John McCain preaches about character and the faith of his fathers, but won't discuss his moral and cultural views. Vice President Al Gore keeps showing up in pulpits, talking about his lively faith, but loathes questions about his days as a Southern Baptist-friendly Tennessee politician. Former Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader Bill Bradley insists that his faith is strong, yet totally private.

Everyone would rather discuss or how they were born again, rather than discuss the details of partial-birth abortion. It's safer to talk about spirituality and renewal than to make a case for or against private-school vouchers in the tense age after Columbine High School.

Right now, American politicians keep saying that faith is good, but it's clear that talking about the details is deadly. The subject is just too hot. So candidates keep shouting their testimonies, rather than answering detailed questions about policies.

What goes around, comes around. Back in the 1970s, noted Fackre, progressives used to attack conservatives whenever they failed to link their evangelistic words with efforts to change society. Thus, they said conservatives like Nixon were guilty of separating "their words and their deeds." Then, during the Clinton crisis, the political and theological left turned around and chanted: "Why don't you take him at his word? He said he's sorry. What more do you want?"

At the moment, everyone seems to have a plan for talking about their religious convictions, but no one wants to discuss how their faith will affect their actions, said Fackre.

"The common theme in all of this is the need to link word and deed," he said. "It matters what our leaders say they believe. But it's even more important to see who will answer questions about what they want to do, as president. We have to be able to make a decision about whether they will walk the walk, not just talk the talk."