God is their copilot

Both born-again, Bush and Gore have made this the most God-fearing presidential race in 100 years. But their faiths have led these men in two completely different directions.

Topics: Religion, George W. Bush, Atheism, Al Gore,

God is their copilot

George W. Bush says he decided to seek the presidency only after hearing about how God chose Moses to lead his people to the promised land.

Al Gore convened a scientific summit in Washington, D.C., after evidence from NASA suggested there might once have been life on Mars. The vice president made sure to include several theologians in the talks. “We talked about life on Mars and what it means to people of faith,” says one participant.

Regardless of whom Gore or Bush picks to be his running mate, one matter seems clear: God will truly be either man’s copilot.

To ignore that for both men the most important thing in their lives is their personal relationship with God would be a sin of secularism — a not uncommon, nor unfounded, critique of the media by religious leaders. After all, wouldn’t the word of God likely have as much sway with Bush and Gore as the opinions of Condoleezza Rice or Carter Eskew?

Not in 100 years — since William McKinley’s successful race against William Jennings Bryan in 1900 — have both major candidates for president been so outspoken about their Christianity. Asked which “political philosopher” he most admires during a GOP debate last December, Bush replied, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” On the stump, Gore invokes the existential question on the braceleted wrists of thousands of Christian teens — “WWJD” (“What Would Jesus Do?”) — and professes that “faith is the center of my life.”

And Gore and Bush are not just devout Christians — Gore, a Baptist; Bush, a Methodist — they both describe themselves by what, in the past, has been a loaded description: born-again. As Fred Barnes, senior editor at the Weekly Standard, recalls, it was considered by many political observers “very weird” when Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter called himself a born-again Christian upon entering the presidential race.

Of course, regardless of what the media thought, Carter won. Faith is much more accepted far from the confines of the Beltway; a 1997 poll from the Barna Research Group showed that 43 percent of Americans consider themselves born-again Christians. And while the term “born-again” may still conjure up primitive images of pious Christian zeal in cosmopolitan circles of New York and Los Angeles, the term still seems less controversial today than it once did.



In the 1980s, the born-again term has lost its “cultural home” and started to become “increasingly ambiguous,” according to Graham Walker, an associate professor of politics at Catholic University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Bush seems to follow a traditional definition: When he found faith in Jesus Christ in 1985 he was born-again, and has since led a new life — one that is free of, among other things, alcohol.

Gore has also described himself as a born-again Christian fairly recently, and maintains a broad definition of exactly what that means: An aide says that Gore means it as more of a philosophical coming to terms with his religious upbringing. But there is reason to believe that for Gore there’s much more there than what he talks about on the stump.

Both candidates benefit from the term’s new “fuzziness,” Walker says. “When Jimmy Carter said he was a born-again Christian in 1976, he was taking a political risk,” Walker says. Gore and Bush are not. “I wonder in both cases whether they are deliberately or inadvertently profiting from the ambiguity of that word,” Walker says. “The term may be highly serviceable because of its ambiguity.” Gore can use the term to appeal to the religious right without turning off the left, since even modern agnostics and secularists now use the term to describe their coming to terms with their spirituality, in a way that has nothing to do with Jesus. Bush, meanwhile, can use the term to satisfy his core conservative constituency without alienating possible crossover voters.

So yes, Bush and Gore use Jesus to their benefit. At a time when religion and spirituality are enjoying a new popularity, with a Gallup poll showing that 96 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, both candidates’ faiths are like any other key line in their bios. And only the most cynical could believe either man is insincere in his frequent exaltations. Both seem genuinely religious. But while both men are proudly born-again, their beliefs are quite different, and not only has their faith taken the two men in very different directions as politicians, the vastly different ways they see religion and Jesus would make them very different presidents.

In his campaign autobiography, communications director Karen Hughes’ “A Charge to Keep,” Bush writes, “I believe it is important to live my faith, not flaunt it.” The book’s index tells a different story. Under “Bush, George W.”:

[gubernatorial] appointments of, 95-109 … in oil and gas industry [his career from 1975-1985], 61-66, 179 … religious background and beliefs of, 1-2, 6, 8-9, 10, 12-13, 19, 45, 83, 86, 132, 136-139, 147.”

Even if he doesn’t exactly flaunt his faith, Bush does seem to like to talk about it quite a bit. Much of it seems tied up in his decision to quit drinking in the summer of 1986 — and by many accounts, Bush was an ugly drunk who never would be where he is today if he hadn’t given up the sauce.

“The seeds” for his decision to go on the wagon, Bush writes in “A Charge To Keep,” “had been planted a year before, by the Reverend Billy Graham” during a visit by Graham in the summer of 1985 to the Bush family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine.

He sat by the fire and talked. And what he said sparked a change in my heart. I don’t remember the exact words. It was more the power of his example. The Lord was so clearly reflected in his gentle and loving demeanor. The next day, we walked and talked at Walker’s Point … Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul … he led me to the path, and I began walking. And it was the beginning of a change in my life. I had always been a religious person, had regularly attended church, even taught Sunday school and served as an altar boy. But that weekend my faith took on a new meaning. It was the beginning of a new walk where I would recommit my heart to Jesus Christ.

Bush didn’t exactly become the exemplar of Christian piety at that very moment. At a Dallas restaurant in April 1986, according to “First Son,” the Bush biography by Dallas Morning News reporter Bill Minutaglio, he spotted columnist Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, who had recently predicted that Jack Kemp, and not then-Vice President George Bush, would be the 1988 GOP presidential nominee. George W. Bush, clearly sloshed, according to Hunt, approached the columnist and, in front of Hunt’s young son, called him a “no-good fucking sonovabitch.”

A couple of months later, after waking up with a wicked hangover on the morning after he turned 40, Bush gave up the bottle, according to “A Charge to Keep.” (Though, he didn’t exactly vault into piety. During the 1988 Republican convention, Bush was asked by a Hartford [Conn.] Courant reporter what he and his father talked about when they weren’t discussing politics. “Pussy,” Bush joked. But at least there was no indication Bush had been drinking.)

Turning to God, however, has also created its own problems, none more controversial for Bush than in 1993 after he told a Jewish reporter for the Austin American-Statesman that, according to his faith, nonbelievers in Christ, including Jews, go to hell. His statements were picked up by the Jewish press, and when he first ran for Texas governor in 1994, were revived by his opponent, then-Gov. Ann Richards, in ads her campaign took out in Jewish newspapers.

“Bush was giving the Orthodox biblical answer,” says Marvin Olasky, a senior fellow of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a born-again Christian and advisor to Bush on compassionate conservatism. “On the face of it, you have to believe in Christ to go to heaven; Jews don’t believe in Christ; therefore, Jews don’t go to heaven. So of course there was an uproar.”

The story lay dormant until 1998 when, right before Bush left for a trip to Israel, the same Austin American-Statesman reporter asked Bush what he would say to the Israelis upon arrival. “Go to hell,” Bush joked.

After that uproar, Bush apologized by sending an artfully phrased letter to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Bush wrote that he was “troubled that some people were hurt … I regret the concern caused by my statement and reassure you and the Jewish community that you have my deepest respect.” Foxman accepted Bush’s apology, now saying “his 1993 statement is now behind us.”

Bush also held a news conference. “My faith tells me that acceptance of Jesus Christ as my savior is my salvation, and I believe I made it clear that it is not the governor’s role to decide who goes to heaven,” he said at the time. “I believe God decides who goes to heaven, not George W. Bush.”

Bush has since adopted this last line as his catchall for whenever he is asked whether Jews — like his press secretary Ari Fleischer, or foreign policy advisors Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz or domestic policy advisor Steven Goldsmith — lack the credentials to get in to heaven.

Some call it a cop-out. “This won’t do, I’m afraid,” Slate’s Michael Kinsley wrote. “No one is asking Bush to ‘decide’ or ‘rule on’ who gets into heaven … The issue is whether God has an admissions policy that excludes Jews and whether George W. has an opinion about what that policy might be. Surely he does. … (I)f Bush really believes that accepting Jesus is the only path to salvation, he is pulling a pretty dirty trick on Jews by telling them otherwise. Putting votes before souls: Talk about political expediency!”

But Olasky explains that this is not necessarily just a political issue. The debate has been around for 2,000 years, of course, and even before Bush was writing apology letters to B’nai B’rith he was debating the issue with his mother, who argued that Jews might go to heaven after all. To settle the score, they asked Billy Graham, who reportedly told them to “never play God.”

Olasky explains the conflict for Christians in the most personal terms. “The Bible clearly says that unless you believe in Christ, you don’t go to heaven,” Olasky says. “So what does this mean for my father” — who was Jewish — “who died 16 years ago?” For reassurance, Olasky says, many Christians turn to the book of Genesis, chapter 18, to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God says “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Jim Mayfield, the senior pastor of Bush’s church in Austin, the Tarrytown United Methodist Church, says: “I believe that God is more loving than we can comprehend, and wiser that we ever have any ability to understand. And therefore, whatever’s most loving and most wise is what happens, and I leave that in God’s hands. If human beings can recognize something as being stupid and unfair, then a wise and loving God can certainly recognize something as being as stupid and unfair.”

So if Bush still believes Jews are going to hell — or gays, adulterers, woman who have abortions, all of whom are believed to be going to hell by many religious conservatives — he’s wisely not saying so out loud. But his Austin pastor, at least, certainly is preaching a more ambiguous form of Christianity.

When American Christianity split into fundamentalists and modernists about 100 years ago, the fundamentalists held onto the term born-again.

“It meant someone who in some conscious fashion had identified the Bible as the inerrant word of God,” Walker says. “Someone who acknowledged that he was falling short of truth and the moral precepts in the Bible, and someone who had personally accepted Jesus Christ into his innermost self, believing Jesus’ death on the cross satisfies the penalty for his sins.”

Gore and Bush seem to embody this fracture of Christianity, with Gore as the modernist and Bush as the fundamentalist.

Where Bush’s adherence to the New Testament has gotten him in some hot water, it is precisely the opposite situation that has theological conservatives wondering about the sincerity of Gore’s religiousness. “Bush seems to know the vocabulary” of born-again Christians more, Walker says, “and he uses it more frequently and with greater comfort than does Gore. Al Gore made a few comments about it, but he has never made it real clear what he means by being a born-again.”

Walker says that the major reason some conservatives question Gore’s claim to be born-again is his position on gay and lesbian rights. “While it’s true that most conservatives regard abortion as a touchstone issue, the Scriptures don’t speak to it so directly,” he says. However, Walker says, “the Bible speaks so unflinchingly of the moral wrong of homosexual acts.” For Gore to support gay rights like domestic partnerships clearly shows “a real dissonance between his policy positions and the Bible. As someone who claims to be a born-again Christian … yet nevertheless so vigorously and publicly stakes out such contrary positions, is cause for at least wonder about the legitimacy of his claim to be a born-again Christian.”

Clearly, Walker says, Gore’s use of the term is one that comes without a strict interpretation of the Bible “as the universal sense of right and wrong.”

Voters looking for a candidate whose word comes directly from the Bible would probably prefer congressional candidate Gore to presidential candidate Gore. It’s not exactly news that Gore’s positions on some issues have changed as he’s segued from Tennessee parochialism. As Newsweek’s Bill Turque points out in his book “Inventing Al Gore,” as a 1976 congressional candidate Gore called homosexuality “abnormal” and said, “I don’t believe a woman’s freedom to live her own life, in all cases, outweighs the fetus’ right to live.”

Today, however, two of the veep’s biggest supporters are the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian rights lobby, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Gore is also far more measured when he does speak in moral terms. When asked about President Clinton’s dalliances with a 21-year-old White House intern, Gore would turn to an altogether different lesson of Christianity. “I’m taught in my religious tradition to hate the sin and love the sinner,” he has said.

While Olasky and Walker would probably be hard-pressed to dispute this particular quote, they do seem to regard theological liberals as inconsistent. Walker says that the modernists’ attempt “to be both Christian and modern” comes only “by twisting Scriptures and discarding them.”

For Gore, there’s also been some criticism that he’s only cited Scripture when it has proven most convenient. When Gore told Lesley Stahl last year on “60 Minutes” that he was born-again — right before the Democratic primaries — some in his opponent’s camp thought it was a bit much.

“You could make the case that Gore did a calculated Christian striptease,” says Richard Stengel, at the time a senior advisor to Bill Bradley. “Supposedly he was just divulging this, but it was obviously strategic,” a way to shore up the support of religious Democrats.

But though it was a surprise to many, it wasn’t disingenuous. “He has this born-again experience that he won’t talk about, really, because he’s afraid of it being misinterpreted,” says Turque. “But he and Tipper were baptized in the late 1970s” by Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Crystal City, Va.

While it wouldn’t be out of character for Gore to divulge personal information for professional gain, the truth is that Gore has long been a religious man. But he has usually cloaked his references to religion in the broadest, most inclusive terms possible.

When asked, during the December Democratic debate broadcast on ABC’s “Nightline,” how much information about religion politicians should share, Gore said, “I affirm my faith when I’m asked about it. But I always try to do so in a way that communicates absolute respect, not only for people who worship in a different way, but just as much respect for those who do not believe in God and who are atheists.”

“Atheists,” Gore said, “have just as much of a right to the public discourse as any … people of any religious faith in this country.”

Why are Gore’s public proclamations of faith so painstakingly inclusive? The Right Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon, a bishop in the Episcopal Church and a longtime friend of the Gore family, says she watched a young Al grow up with “a foot in Tennessee and a foot in Washington, D.C.”

That included having one foot in Northeastern-elite Episcopalianism and another in Deep South Southern Baptism. Educated at St. Albans, an Episcopal school for boys in Washington, Gore spent summers in Carthage, Tenn., where the family attended the local Baptist church.

“His religious upbringing mirrored the split nature of the rest of his childhood,” Turque says.

“There was the hot, fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist side, and the Episcopal side, which was cooler and less fevered,” Turque says. “One of the things he came away with from Baptism was this sharply divided sense of right and wrong, this constant internal checking of whether you’re in the right.”

But if his divided religious childhood raised questions for him, by the time he finished serving in Vietnam, Gore wanted some answers. According to Bob Zelnick’s biography “Gore: A Political Life,” while in Vietnam, Gore had written to a friend from Fort Rucker in Alabama, telling of having seen women and children shot down by Huey helicopters. When he got home, Gore wrote to his friend, “I’m going to divinity school to atone for my sins.”

He enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School back home in Nashville, and Jack Forstman, the longtime dean, recalls Gore relaying a similar sentiment. “He simply said to me that he had been in Vietnam and what he had seen there and his experiences there had raised a lot of troubling questions in his mind.”

The “inhumanities that take place in war” had Gore’s “foundations shaking a little bit … He wasn’t in bad shape or anything. He was a little serious, as he tends to be about everything. Perhaps too serious,” Forstman says, laughing. “But as an undergraduate at Harvard he’d taken a class in religion, and he thought that at that point, taking some classes would be helpful.”

“It was purification,” Tipper once said of her husband’s decision, as quoted by Zelnick.

So Forstman and the Divinity School faculty took this senator’s son and “did with Al what we did and do with others like him — we had a good many around that time — and we found a slot for him.” Gore enrolled in the master’s program though “it was clear that he did not want to pursue a degree.”

Still, he worked hard. “He was a very motivated member of the seminar,” says now-retired professor Eugene TeSelle, who taught a course called “Theology and Natural Science” that “dealt with various aspects of religion in science and the impact of religion on science through the centuries.” Gore, says TeSelle, was “reflective,” especially when it came to issues of ecology and pollution.

Gore was no less impressive to since-retired theology professor Edward Farley. “He was quite determined that he needed this course for the issues he was struggling with, though he didn’t have much background with it,” Farley says.

But in the midst of his second semester, in 1972, Gore dropped out of the program altogether when he went from working nights to days as a reporter at the Nashville Tennesseean. He got five Fs that semester and still owes Farley — among others — a paper.

These days were the beginnings of Gore’s amateur dabbling as a theologian; many of the lessons he learned then have apparently stayed with him. Farley said he was pleased to read in the New Yorker how Gore would reference the philosophers he studied in Farley’s class. “I never knew until then that my course had any lasting impression,” he says.

Likewise, TeSelle was intrigued by the passages in Gore’s environmental tract, “Earth In the Balance,” that dealt with the interconnectedness of spirituality and environmentalism. In the book, Gore promulgates the concept of monotheism, which “identified the natural world as sacred, not because each rock and tree was animated by a mysterious spirit, but because each rock and tree was created by God.”

After he dropped out of the program, Gore’s father, according to Time magazine, asked him: “Did you find the answers you were looking for?”

“I’ve learned to ask more intelligent questions,” Gore replied. He would later call his time at divinity school “one of the most valuable years that I ever spent in my life.”

“Gore loves Scripture, he loves to interpret it,” says Dixon. Both Bush and Gore “talk about religion, and it means something to each of them, but they do express it differently. Bush is not a theologian — he doesn’t talk like one, you can tell that. Gore is more likely to talk like a theologian.”

Even in his controversial April 18 deposition with Justice Department campaign finance investigator Robert Conrad, Gore thought to discuss his religious inquisitiveness — in the context of the infamous Buddhist temple fundraiser.

Master Hsing Yun, Gore said, “was very proud of an exhibit that they had that depicted different religious stories in Buddhism in a kind of a diorama-type way, life-size sculpted figures. I don’t know what they were made out of, but it was this sort of tableaus, one after the other.” More important, Gore said, was his conversation with Hsing Yun, which was about “theological issues. Having been a student at the graduate school of religion at Vanderbilt, I was asking him a lot of questions about aspects of his faith that I knew nothing about. And it was quite an interesting conversation and made an impression on me.”

In this race, Bush made his most public profession of faith during a GOP debate in December when, after being asked his favorite political philosopher or thinker, Bush replied, “Christ, because he changed my heart.”

But even then, Bush characterized his faith with what some took as an off-putting dis of nonbelievers. After an Iowa TV reporter co-moderating the debate pursued the question further, asking, “I think the viewer would like to know more on how he’s changed your heart.” Bush responded, “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain.”

“When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart and changes your life,” he said.

On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Weekly Standard editor William Kristol said, “Governor Bush took a question about what philosopher or thinker has influenced you the most, a question everyone else answered by saying, ‘Here’s a thinker who’s been important for us Americans,’ and he answered it about himself personally. I think it’s deeply revealing, actually … of a certain kind of narcissism.”

Kristol continued: “What’s unnerving, I think, about Governor Bush’s answer is that he took it to be entirely about himself.”

The personal nature of Bush’s religion can, indeed, sometimes seem a bit odd, if not narcissistic. Take what Bush calls his “defining moment” that prompted his decision to run for president.

It happened while listening to a sermon in January 1999, right before Bush was re-inaugurated as governor of Texas. The sermon “reached out and grabbed me, and changed my life,” Bush writes in “A Charge To Keep.”

The preacher, Bush writes, “told the story of Moses, asked by God to lead his people to a land of milk and honey. Moses had a lot of reason to shirk the task. As the pastor told it, Moses’ basic reaction was, ‘Sorry, God, I’m busy. I’ve got a family. I’ve got sheep to tend. I’ve got a life. Who am I that I should go to Pharoah, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?’”

The moral, as Bush recounted it, is that “People are starved for leadership … starved for leaders who have ethical and moral courage.” Later, Barbara Bush turned to her oldest son. “He was talking to you,” she said.

In the book, Bush acknowledges that “the pastor was, of course, talking to all of us.” But he also “was challenging me to do more. To run for president.”

Bush’s relationship with his religion seems very much like his relationship with politics — very instinctual, and not something he’s particularly good at talking about. In 1994, a Houston Post reporter asked Bush about the fact that he attended a Methodist church, even though he had been raised as an Episcopalian, which is the faith of his parents.

“I’m sure there is some kind of heavy doctrinal difference, which I’m not sophisticated enough to explain to you,” Bush said.

This sort of lax explanation has raised a question or two about just how seriously he takes religion — or at least the religion of others. After the House of Representatives passed a juvenile justice bill allowing states to post the Ten Commandments in public schools, Bush said, “I have no problem with the Ten Commandments posted on the walls of every public place.”

When asked which version should be posted, he replied, “the standard version.”

Of course, there is no “standard version” of the Ten Commandments. Protestants, Catholics and Jews all have different versions that vary in more than one way. Jews and most Protestant sects, for instance, regard the entire “Thou shalt not covet …” section to be one commandment, while Lutherans and Catholics separate the section into two commandments — one addressing the coveting of a neighbor’s wife, the other, a neighbor’s property.

Bush’s is not the religion of a theologian, or one who seems to know a lot about Scripture or other religions — or even his own. Again, this is not uncommon in the evangelical tradition. In “A Christian Agenda: Game Plan for a New Era,” published by the conservative, Texas International Christian Media, author Marlin Maddoux cites statistics showing that “only half [of evangelical Christians] identified Jesus as the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount” and “less than half could list even five of the Ten Commandments.”

“There are those who want to focus on the primacy of Scripture, but our Methodist heritage focuses on the primacy of God’s grace … and the primacy of God’s love that we don’t deserve,” says Mayfield, Bush’s pastor in Austin.

Of course, the personal nature of Bush’s religion can also come across in the exact opposite manner, as humility. After Bush first visited his congregation, Mayfield visited with him to see if there were any special protocols or diplomacies that he needed to know for having the governor as a congregant.

“When I come here I come here as a child of God,” Bush told him.

“He seemed very genuine about that,” Mayfield says. “Being in the state capital, we get exposed to politicians and we get exposed to politicians. And after a while you get an idea of the ones who are shaking hands for the sake of a vote and those who just like people. The Bushes just like people. I’m not discounting their shrewdness or ability in politics, but it’s been very clear that his participation here is for his own spiritual need.” This sort of willful — blissful, really — ignorance of religion raises real questions about just how he would apply his faith to his governing.

Olasky first met Bush in 1993 after his book, “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” prompted Bush campaign manager Karl Rove to invite him to meet with Bush. The governor’s vision of a “compassionate conservatism” was born about that time.

For numerous conservatives, Olasky’s book spelled out the way their version of government was not only more efficient, but more humane. (Olasky’s next book, to be published next month, is called “Compassionate Conservatism,” and includes a foreword by Bush.)

The tenets of Bush’s political philosophy have their roots in Christian theology, Olasky says. Bush “has the view that people can change. And one reason I suspect he has that view is that he changed himself, through God’s grace.” When Bush visits inner-city locals dedicated to fighting alcoholism and drug addiction “he can identify because of the change he himself” went through when he quit drinking.

That means, Olasky says, that Bush disagrees with a paternal liberalism that patronizes the poor by doling out cash and allowing its ranks to live lives of sloth. Because Bush has faith that people can change means, for example, he opposes free needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users, believing the assumption behind such a program is that drug users cannot change.

“One thing that he does very well is — in the way a good pastor will not stand in the pulpit and start yelling, saying, ‘You are sinners!’ — [Bush] will say, ‘We are sinners.’ And that makes a huge difference,” Olasky says. “He comes off as inclusively saying the same things to others than he says to himself. ‘We’re sinners. Whatever good things I occasionally do come from God’s grace.’ This is more than rhetoric. This is understanding.”

But Bush’s “understanding” outside of the Methodist notion of God’s grace can seem pretty thin. When Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly asked Bush how the teachings of Christ square with his avid support of the death penalty, Bush said, “I’m not so sure he addressed the death penalty itself in the New Testament. Maybe he did.”

Religious scholars are actually quite torn over what God would think of the death penalty. On one hand, some point to the “eye for an eye” justice cited in the Bible. On the other are those who point out that God banished Cain when he slew his brother Abel instead of killing him; “‘Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Lord” — meaning only God has the power to kill for the sake of punishment.

Bush’s seeming ignorance of this debate — not exactly an obscure one — is all the more confounding when you consider that the Texas governor has presided over the executions of one-sixth of all of those killed by the state since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. To Christian scholars like Olasky, this isn’t even remotely an issue. “The basic principle of capital punishment in murder cases, and whether it’s right or wrong” isn’t tough, Olasky says. “The Bible quite clearly says it’s right.”

The clarity of his biblical interpretations aside, Bush is clearly an advocate of increasing the role of church within society, though to what extent is unclear. One of the first policy papers that Bush presented as a candidate was on allowing federal dollars to fund faith-based charities. Many conservatives argue that communities are better served by churches and other religious institutions because they’re simply more efficient and more community-based than faceless bureaucracies getting their orders from Washington. Others argue that any federal dollars going to a house of worship constitutes a violation of the separation of church and state.

To many in the secular world, Bush’s embrace of his own religion can sometimes sure seem a bit clueless. Despite his own “irresponsible” youth — not to mention what he and his father talk about when they’re not talking about politics — Bush has been a big proponent of abstinence programs, going so far as to convene a conference in March 1999 where 700 teenagers were instructed in the latest in trendy evangelical theology: born-again virginity, available to even the most randy high school cheerleader, if she agrees to embrace abstinence.

And this year, on April 17, Bush signed a proclamation declaring June 10 to be “Jesus Day” in Texas, in which the public was “challenged … to follow Christ’s example.” Well, lots of Texans don’t believe in Jesus, or that he was the son of God. Already, Democrats are grabbing passages from Olasky’s pending book to damn Bush with Olasky’s old-school theology: The most-highlighted sentence mentions that “the wall of separation of church and state … would stop compassionate conservatism in its tracks if it were part of the Constitution. But it’s not.”

But ultimately, Bush’s religious views may have their biggest impact when it comes to the Supreme Court justices he could pick. With Justices William Rehnquist, 75; Sandra Day O’Connor, 70; and John Paul Stevens, 80; all likely to retire, he could stack the court with religious conservatives like the two he calls his favorites: Antonin Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic, and Clarence Thomas, a Catholic who attends the conservative, charismatic Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Va. (Indeed, whether they come to him or he to them, Bush often finds himself working with religious Christians. As a partner of the Texas Rangers, he pushed for scouts to sign evangelical Christian athletes. And a dozen or so women on his campaign staff, including press aides Mindy Tucker, Megan Moran and Lee Boddy, regularly hold Bible study.)

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, where a Mormon family and a Roman Catholic family challenged a public high school district in suburban Houston that allowed students to conduct Christian prayer at football games from the stadium’s public-address system, Bush filed a brief on behalf of the high school district that allowed school prayer.

“I happen to believe it is constitutional for voluntary school-led prayer in after-school activities like football,” Bush said.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In a 6-3 ruling on June 19, the court ruled against the school district’s policy. “The religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer,” wrote Stevens for the majority, which included O’Connor. Thomas and Scalia — along with Rehnquist — held the minority position, with which Bush agreed.

Bush is “not a Bible-quoter,” says Olasky, but rather has “attitudes within a biblical framework … There is a biblical way of looking at things that goes beyond any particular verse.”

Conversely, Bible quotes pop up everywhere in Gore’s speeches, and according to aides, he almost always chooses the quotes himself. In a 1992 campaign speech, Gore referenced the book of Ecclesiastes at a rally: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do,” he said, “do it with thy might.” At his father’s December 1998 funeral, Gore praised his old man’s political courage, saying, “My father believed in the words of the Scripture: ‘Woe unto you that all men shall speak well of you.’”

He hasn’t always gotten it right. In his July 1992 vice presidential nomination acceptance speech, Gore concluded by saying, “In the words of the Bible: ‘Do not lose heart. This nation will be renewed.’” The Rev. Jerry Falwell was kind enough to point out that this quote doesn’t actually exist in the Bible. (The quote came from a passage written by a Gore family minister who had made some creative interpretations.)

Gore’s church, Mount Vernon Baptist, is “pretty liberal, even for this area,” says the Rev. Martha Phillips, who will only say of congregant Gore that “he’s dedicated to the church, as far as I can tell, in his attendance and his support.”

She adds that Gore has been incredibly supportive of her as a female reverend, which theologically conservative churches do not allow. But Gore seems to have never had a problem with women as leaders of the church.

Gore’s religion is, according to biographer Turque, “an amalgam of traditional Southern Baptism and spiritual New Age stuff.”

Some of the New Age stuff can be a bit trippy. “He has a real interest in science and religion,” says the Rev. Joan Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a Gore advisor on spirituality.

After NASA reported in 1996 that it had found remnants of microscopic organisms that its scientists believed had lived on Mars 3.6 billion years ago, Gore convened a summit largely consisting of scientists, but also included representatives from the religious community.

“There were Nobel laureates there, but he also put people from the world of religion into the meeting,” including herself and two Catholic priests, Campbell says. “Not every person who would convene a meeting about life on Mars would even to think to invite someone from the religious community. But for him, the religious dimension to life is very important. Not just in a pious, Sunday morning way, but in issues of life.”

Ever since TeSelle’s Vanderbilt class, Gore has focused attention on the relationship between the environment and spirituality. In 1991, Sen. Gore helped organize an environmental summit that included two dozen religious leaders from every major American faith. The summit later called for a number of green actions, including an accelerated phaseout of ozone-depleting chemicals. It was the beginnings of what in 1994 would become the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, one of Gore’s proudest accomplishments.

In 1992, Gore brought astronomer Carl Sagan together with a number of rabbis to form the Consultation on the Environment and Jewish Life. Gore called the growing environmental damage to the Earth “an environmental Kristallnacht” — the type of rhetoric also included a year later when he published “Earth in the Balance,” for which some have mocked him ever since.

As Gore has made efforts to reintroduce himself to the American people, he has made sure that his religiosity has been a highlighted part of bio.

In May 1999, Gore invoked religion when speaking to University of New Hampshire students.

Around that time, his communications staff invited seven religion reporters to sit down and wax biblical with Gore. “I think the purpose of life is to glorify God,” he said. “I turn to my faith as the bedrock of my approach to any important question in my life.” (“To hear the name [Maurice] ‘Merleau-Ponty’ trip off the tongue of a major American politician is surely extraordinary,’ wrote New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels. ‘Whether it is a qualification to be president is an entirely different matter.’”)

And then the climax: Speaking before a Salvation Army in Atlanta, he came out as what might be called a religious New Democrat — one who shares Clinton’s love for the middle ground, while not sharing all of the president’s hobbies. And in doing so, Gore essentially agreed with Bush on the controversial subject of funneling federal dollars toward faith-based charities. But after Gore advisor Elaine Kamarck boasted to the Boston Globe that “the Democratic Party is going to take back God this time,” some wondered how much of the speech was rooted in principle and how much was just politics.

“For too long, national leaders have been trapped in a dead-end debate,” Gore said. “Some on the right have said for too long that a specific set of religious values should be imposed, threatening the founders’ precious separation of church and state. In contrast, some on the left have said for too long that religious values should play no role in addressing public needs. These are false choices: hollow secularism or right-wing religion. Both positions are rigid; they are not where the new solutions lie.”

“I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. But freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion,” Gore said. “There is a better way.”

Gore then proposed federal aid for faith-based charities, “as long as there is always a secular alternative for anyone who wants one, and as long as no one is required to participate in religious observances as a condition for receiving services.” Gore also would not send funds directly to groups that proselytize, while Bush would, as long as the money doesn’t go directly into proselytizing activities.

Not every Democrat had faith in Gore’s proposal. “The Democratic Party, which traditionally was more secular than the Republican, has begun to run on God’s coattails,” wrote Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz in Free Inquiry, the publication of the atheist Council on Secular Humanism. “It started with Jimmy Carter. It got worse with Bill Clinton. And it promises to get even worse with Al Gore, who is explicitly pandering to what he calls ‘faith-based organizations.’”

But, as with Bush, religious figures close to Gore believe his faith to be sincere. Dixon says one of the biblical passages that means the most to Gore is Romans 8:38-39.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“There have to be very hard moments for people who have as much power as the vice president,” Dixon says. “That Scripture means a lot to him.” No matter what Gore feels has to do in his capacity as vice president of the “principality,” the reassurance that nothing can separate him from Jesus’ love is of tremendous comfort to him, she says.

No matter who wins this November, it’s probably a passage that both men would find reassuring. Both would no doubt breathe a sigh of relief to be reminded that Jesus will love them no matter what un-Christian-like behavior they wreak in their mad dashes to power over the next few months.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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