How much will religion influence this year's presidential election?
And where are the appropriate boundaries between the pulpit and the ballot box?
With the economy _ rather than a visceral issue like abortion _ at the forefront of the American agenda, don't look for religion to have a major impact on who occupies the Oval Office for the next four years.
Not that the economy doesn't have clear moral and ethical implications. Problems such as homelessness, unemployment and taxation raise troubling questions about U.S. social policy.
But economics is not a subject that lends itself to clearly defined sectarian views _ or to broad mobilization of the religious community.
To be sure, whether you're a liberal Presbyterian or a fundamentalist Pentecostal, it's clear something is terribly wrong with the economy. But a call for a neatly defined set of reforms from the pulpits and pews of America? Not likely.
Clergy can preach social justice and equality all they want. In the pews, it's another story. One person's social justice (a higher minimum wage, for instance) is another's perceived attack on the middle class ("a higher minimum wage will hurt family-owned businesses, lead to even more layoffs, slow the economic recovery, etc., etc.").
Then, too, high-level ecclesiastic bodies have hardly shown a capacity for consensus on important moral questions of the day. They can't even decide what the Bible says about euthanasia and sexuality. So don't expect a seamless message on the federal deficit or capital gains tax.
And then there's religion's big-time failure in the national political arena. In the 1980s, we saw Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority _ his vehicle for delivering a right-wing agenda to America _ crash and burn. Other groups, such as the ultraconservative American Family Association, persist. But these do not have the national clout or broad popular support to raise much dust in national election year politics.
If there is an issue in which religious sentiment will surface in a big way, it is abortion. But I do not expect abortion to be the decisive election issue. As political columnist George Will wrote recently, "for most Americans, abortion is a troubling but peripheral issue, especially during the recession."
Let's not forget, too, that notwithstanding what clergy preach, many church and synagogue goers are split on abortion. This is not an issue that creases neatly down denominational lines. Many liberal Catholics and Episcopalians, for instance, support a woman's right to choose; many conservative members of liberal denominations do not. A politician with an otherwise weak platform would be mistaken to count on an abortion-related "Catholic vote" or "Bible Belt vote" to bail him out.
Other campaign issues, such as crime and education (including government funding of private religious schools) raise important questions worthy of deliberation by church bodies. But such issues alone will not determine the election in a year when so many people are worried for their jobs and financial futures.
Whatever role religion plays in the election's outcome, a more basic question is: How far should religious bodies go in entangling themselves in the push and pull of national politics _ and vice versa? Where are the appropriate boundaries?
The federal government already sets some limits. Recently, Jimmy Swaggart's Louisiana ministry acknowledged that the organization's endorsement of Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential candidacy violated federal tax law.
But religious groups and politicians have a responsibility to go beyond the letter of the law.
Religious organizations must assess a person's entire character before deciding who's fit for office. A candidate may have a position on abortion, school prayer or U.S.-Israeli policy that jibes exactly with that of the clerical authorities; but the candidate's actions on racial, poverty, AIDS or elderly issues may have led to untold _ and invisible _ suffering.
It's fine for clergy and congregation to make their views known on important issues. But they also should remember that we do not choose lobbyists when we go to the polls; we choose competence and character on as broad a spectrum as possible.
The flip side of this issue is this: Politicians must stop pandering to the pews for votes.
Late last month, President Bush delivered a speech peppered with religious-sounding language and biblical references to the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters. This is a group that influences a sizable voting bloc of conservative evangelicals _ and presumably some big-money campaign donors.
Among other things, Bush linked America's gulf war strategy to Christianity, thanking the organization for its support of the war and "for helping America, as Christ ordained, to be "a light unto the world.' "
Even some ministers in the broadcaster group found Bush's remarks disingenuous. "He's a typical politician. He's talking to us, so he's talking our language," one convention delegate was quoted by Religious News Service.
Jews and Muslims found even more to dislike about Bush's remarks, the news agency report suggests. Mohammad T. Mehdi, secretary general of the National Council on Islamic Affairs and an Iraqi native, said Bush's comments linking Christianity to U.S. policy offended Muslims and confirmed "the belief in the Muslim world that last year's war on Iraq was another Crusade by Christians against Islam."
"Bush," Mehdi said, "is alienating the Muslim world further and abusing the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth."
Mark Pelavin, a representative of the American Jewish Congress, characterized Bush's comment as "a particularly outrageous suggestion." Pelavin noted that Jewish groups had "talked a lot over the past 10 years about the folly of America being a Christian country."
I have an even more fundamental problem with remarks like Bush's. While it was American foreign policy that defeated Saddam Hussein, it was also our country _ along with other so-called "Christian" Western nations _ that helped arm him and that supported him when he fought another "demon" empire, Iran.
Not only that, a strong case can be made that it wasn't freedom at all we were defending in the Middle East last year, but our own insatiable appetite for oil. What has Bush _ or religious groups, for that matter _ said about conservation or a stronger U.S. energy policy since the shooting stopped?
And then there is the pathetic suffering among the war's civilian casualties, many of whom are children dying from disease and deprivation brought on by the conflict. Is that something Christ "ordained" too?
To suggest that our Mideast policy is somehow the will of God is political folderol. It reminds me of the bluster I used to hear when I worked in Dallas in the go-go era of the late '70s and early '80s, when rich Bible-toting oilmen would say God was smiling on the great state of Texas.
Just look what happened there.