At a discussion Wednesday hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., agreed that religion can play a positive role in American politics, if it is used judiciously.
Though these sentiments may not be new, they are now of particular consequence in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which have spurred many Americans to embrace faith, and in light of the faith-based initiative adopted by the administration of President George W. Bush.
"In a year in which religion has received generous attention from press and public alike, issues of faith have emerged in numerous political campaigns," said the Pew Forum.
"In the 2000 presidential campaign, religion was discussed more often than in any other campaign," said forum moderator E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "George W. Bush talked about how he had 'recommitted his life to Christ,' while Al Gore told the press that the 'purpose of my life is to glorify God,' and then-vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman argued strongly for the importance of faith in public life."
But how comfortable are Americans with this marriage between faith and politics?
According to a September 2000 survey released by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 70 percent of Americans thought it was important for political candidates to be strongly religious, but 50 percent were uncomfortable when politicians talked about how religious they are.
Both Cuomo and Souder said that religion is akin to a set of beliefs and values, which will inevitably come up in politics. But the two politicians define "religion" differently.
Cuomo, an observant Catholic who represented diverse and pluralistic New York State, said that politics should include religion as defined by "the Natural Law shared by all the nation's religions," a common sense for the common good, as opposed to embracing Judeo-Christian or Eastern religious models, for example.
"Religion doesn't need vestments, or other traditional religious symbols -- it needs love and improvement of the species, which is the essence of every religion," Cuomo said. "There is an increasing desire among Americans to become more spiritual, to believe in something bigger than oneself -- which is a good thing -- especially after 9/11."
On the other hand, Souder, a fundamentalist Anabaptist, defines "religion" more narrowly, but assured the audience that his Christian sensibility is not monolithic and is forgiving of diversity.
"Nature's God and the natural law is a different one than Christianity, and is unacceptable to me," Souder said. "But Christians aren't monolithic. Some say America was founded as a Christian nation, but that definition is much broader than people assume. Christians aren't united on anything; we're all different enough to know how to accommodate divisions."
Cuomo said that religious belief, like any strong conviction, should affect policy when it is in the best interests of the society as a whole.
"The Constitution guarantees my right to try to convince you to accept my belief as public law, but when is it right to do this, and when would it be divisive? I'm against the death penalty because it is bad, debasing, hypocritical for society. But should we outlaw stem cell research and contraceptives? I say no, because that would be too divisive," he said.
Of the notion that God is aligned against evil in the current threat of terrorism, Cuomo said: "I suggest the president put greater emphasis on the love aspect of religion when he is trying to develop a consensus against Iraq, instead of giving a purely negative purpose for a war. He needs to emphasize that we'll go to war as a last resort, that it will kill innocent people, and that it is a heavy moral principle to be weighed with caution."
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