Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Back to the future: Politics, the economy, faith

Blogger’s note: Listening to the current crop of presidential candidates reaching for the golden ring, raising issues of religion and faith, reminded me of another presidential race a few years ago. Once upon a time when I worked for that place with a printing press, I wrote a column about presidential politics and religion. The year was 1996 and Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were hot on the campaign trail.

A funny thing happened on the way to electing a President this year. All the talk about the candidates catering to the cares and concerns of the religious right never materialized.

It’s been months since anyone has spent much time debating the religiously-infused topics of abortion, prayer or family values. God has remained an impartial spectator to this point.

Both President Clinton and Sen. Dole have allowed the deity to remain on the sideline, resisting the urge to attach their campaign bandwagons to cosmic coattails. That the economy remains the most pressing concern to many Americans may be one factor the religious card remains on the bottom of the deck.

Worry about the future economic health of the country means most voters are more interested in debate over taxes and the budget, than family values and prayer.

And both men realize that talk of Christian ethics and values might elicit a chorus of amens, but talk of balancing the budget while lowering the deficit will mean votes in November. It could have been different.

Clinton and Dole could have easily spent the last several weeks lacing their speeches with talk of faith and the need for a return to a nation based on Christian ethics and values. They are both men of faith who are comfortable sharing their religious views. Both have quietly called upon such beliefs for strength and guidance during moments of doubt in the past.

The importance of God and country rests easily in the heart of Dole. The same can be said of Clinton.

One story holds that Dole goes nowhere without a prayer tucked away in his shirt pocket. Once asked how he was doing in the campaign, he pointed to his pocket and joked all he had was a prayer. Insiders say the story is true.

That much of his life has been a struggle, that without faith he might still be battling the demons of war and the horrific wounds he suffered in World War II, makes it all the more remarkable that he holds tight and keeps quiet about his religious beliefs. And yet perhaps such reasons are exactly why he refuses to mix religion and politics. Some things are just too important and too personal to share.

Clinton’s angst and spiritual beliefs are linked with his personal and political life, failures and sins that are all a matter of public record. He, too, jokes when asked about such faith. His religion, he says, gives him a second chance. He smiles. But then his eyes begin to water and you realize he’s not really joking, that he
really means what he says.

It takes little effort to see the Methodist in Dole, the Baptist in Clinton. Their lives and personalities are the product of their religious upbringing – Dole, forever the pragmatist, quiet and straightforward, a man who believes deeply in himself, his country and in God; Clinton, fiery and passionate, different personality, different political philosophy and agenda, same religious convictions.

And perhaps that, as much as anything, is why God remains on the sideline. Dole is a conservative republican. Clinton is a liberal Democrat. But both men recognize God is neither.

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