Religion comes to fore in presidential politics

WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 (JTA) — No matter who wins the race for the U.S. presidency in November, American religious institutions will likely be called on to play a larger role in dispensing social services to those in need.

All of the presidential candidates support the initiative known as charitable choice, which would provide public funding to faith-based organizations to run such programs as homeless shelters or drug abuse programs.

That is the finding of a new study assessing the positions of all the current presidential candidates on a variety of issues of concern to Jews.

The study, by the National Jewish Democratic Council, was released this week as Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush cruised to victory in the Iowa presidential caucuses, giving them new momentum for the primary season that begins next week in New Hampshire.

The NJDC, whose study lays out the views of the two Democrats, six Republicans and one Reform Party candidate with their eyes on the White House, clearly has issued the report with a partisan agenda in mind — to promote the Democratic candidates as those most appealing to Jewish voters.

Despite its partisan purpose, however, the guide details — through voting records, public statements and news reports — the views of the candidates on issues from Israel to abortion.

The compilation of views on church-state issues seems particularly timely, coming during a presidential race in which personal faith and church-state issues have played a prominent role.

The unprecedented discussion about religion — including the revelation that Bush views Jesus as his favorite philosopher, and how Gore proudly refers to his born-again Christian beliefs — has made many Jews uncomfortable.

But others say the personal religious beliefs of a president are irrelevant or can even say something positive about a person.

“The notion that a Christian saying he is a Christian excludes Jews or is offensive to Jews is silly rhetoric,” said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University.

Breger, an Orthodox Jew who served as the Jewish liaison under President Reagan, said that in fact he believes that people who are more religious “would be more respectful of my religion.”

What matters most, say many Jews, is how those beliefs translate into policy.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said political candidates, like all Americans, have the right to talk about their faith.

But he warned that as such discussion becomes a “part of the generic public discourse,” then people will increasingly ask the candidates how they are going to act on those beliefs in terms of legislative initiatives.

Legislation on such issues, said Saperstein, will ultimately lead to dividing Americans along “sectarian lines” when questions arise as to whose prayers can be said, whose symbols can be posted or which religious groups will get federal funding.

When it comes to public policy on issues such as charitable choice and vouchers, the Jewish community is engaged in its own debate. Once widely viewed as opposed to any programs that penetrated the strict constitutional barrier between religion and state, the community is no longer so monolithic.

The issue of school vouchers, for instance, long opposed by most Jewish organizations on the grounds that it violates church-state separation, has emerged as a hot-button issue as the Jewish community wrestles with assimilation and how to help Jewish families afford day schools.

Jewish groups are also split over charitable choice, which was included in legislation for the first time in the welfare reform legislation of 1996.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella fund-raising and social service organization of the Jewish community, decided in the fall of 1998 to oppose all current charitable choice programs and any attempts to expand them from the welfare bill to other social services.

Orthodox groups, such as Agudath Israel of America, support the expansion of charitable choice, saying the program “protects both the religious character of faith-based social service providers and the religious liberty of service recipients.”

The Jewish Council of Public Affairs, an umbrella body of national Jewish organizations and community relations councils, however, has taken a more nuanced approach.

In its 1999 policy statement, the group said it would support legislation on charitable choice only when there are provisions protecting the religious freedom of those receiving the services and of the employees working for the providers.

The stance of the JCPA reflects the positions being advocated by both Gore and Bradley, who have said that safeguards need to be put in place to prohibit proselytizing and maintain a strict separation of church and state, according to the 55-page NJDC report.

Under Gore’s proposal, religious institutions could receive federal funds for drug treatment programs, services for the homeless and initiatives to combat youth violence “without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness.” But he has said that secular alternatives should always be available and that people in need must not be required to participate in religious observances.

Despite his call for safeguards, Gore, in announcing his “New Partnership” plan last year, said, “Freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion.”

For his part, Bush has pledged to funnel $8 billion in public funds into faith-based organizations and set up an office at the White House to deal with the issue.

John McCain (R-Ariz.) also backs expanding charitable choice and has said he supports Bush’s approach.

Bush has not spoken about maintaining safeguards in the manner of Gore and Bradley, saying religion is fundamental to the success of the programs.

Last week, Bush talked about his decision in 1986 to stop drinking at Teen Challenge, a Christian treatment center for drug and alcohol abusers.

Quoted by Reuters as saying that “government should not frustrate or be worried” about such programs, Bush added, “We should welcome Teen Challenge and the commonplace miracles of renewal that take place.”

The differences between the leading candidates, Gore and Bush, on charitable choice are interesting in light of how they have talked about their own personal faith during the campaign.

Both have spoken about their born-again Christian beliefs, just as all of the candidates, except for Bill Bradley, have discussed their religious beliefs.

Bush has often spoken about how turning to Jesus has changed his life and he raised eyebrows when he picked Jesus as his favorite philosopher during one of the Republican debates.

When asked by NBC’s Tim Russert during a later debate if religious minorities in the United States should “feel excluded from George W. Bush because of his allegiance to Jesus,” Bush said no.

He then added: “It doesn’t make me better than you or make me better than anybody else, but it’s a foundation for how I live my life. Some may accept the answer and some may not. But Tim, I really don’t care.”

However, Bush has also said that he is “staunchly committed to the principles of religious freedom, tolerance and diversity that are embodied in the First Amendment.” That remark came in a 1998 letter to the Anti-Defamation League in which he tried to clarify an earlier statement that only Christians have a place in heaven.

Gore, during a recent meeting with Jewish leaders in New York, said that while he will not back away from discussing his beliefs, he said he would not actively push those beliefs as part of the campaign.

Gore also has said that he tries to affirm his faith “in a way that communicates absolute respect, not only for people who worship in a different way, but just as mush respect for those who do not believe in God and who are atheists.”

Jewish Democrats argue that the language of Bush and many other GOP candidates have excluded people and will drive Jews to the polls in support of the Democrats.

In an conference call to discuss the NJDC’s report, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is supporting Bradley, charged the GOP candidates with having been “totally insensitive to minority religious groups” on a host of issues.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is backing Gore, said, “No matter which issue you look at, it’s clear to me the Jewish community should be supportive of Gore or Bradley.”

The Republicans, not surprisingly, disagree.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he saw little difference between what Bush and Gore have been saying about their religious faith — or their support for charitable choice.

He suggested that some of Bush’s curt answers on religion indicate that he does not want to “foist his views on others.”

Brooks, whose group plans a similar breakdown on the candidates’ positions for the general election, said he believes that Jewish voters will be less focused on church-state issues once the general election comes around, and instead will concentrate on the economy, taxes, Social Security and the U.S. role in the Middle East peace process.

On other church-state-related issues outlined in the NJDC report, here is the breakdown among the top candidates:

• Vouchers: Among the Democrats, Gore and Bradley differ slightly. Gore opposes using tax dollars to send students to parochial schools. While Bradley says he opposes using federal money for religious schools, he did as a senator support an experimental voucher program and has said he would explore whether such programs improved the quality of public education because of the competition from private and parochial schools.

All of the Republican candidates have expressed support for providing vouchers for religious and private schools.

• School Prayer: Both Gore and Bradley oppose organized school prayer while both Bush and McCain support voluntary school prayer.

• Ten Commandments in Public Spaces: The Democrats oppose placing the Ten Commandments in public spaces, including schools. The Republicans and Buchanan, the only declared candidate for the Reform Party nomination, support and would encourage it.

NEXT STORY