The audience was celebratory, but the speaker was somber. Addressing 2,400 graduating seniors at the University of New Hampshire, the presidential candidate spoke darkly of things such as murder, evil, and sin.
"In my faith tradition, I am drawn to the story of the first murder," the speaker said, comparing the Columbine High School killers to Cain, whose pent-up rage against not being accepted led him to kill his brother. Quoting from Genesis, the candidate reminded the audience of God's response to Cain: "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lieth at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it."
It was an odd commencement address, made all the odder by the one delivering it. This particular sermon came not from Alan Keyes or Gary Bauer or even George W. Bush. The candidate preaching under sunny New Hampshire skies was none other than Vice President Al Gore.
Gore supporters insist this biblical emphasis is nothing new. The vice president, they point out, is the only candidate from either party who actually attended seminary. (Mr. Gore spent one year at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in 1971.)
But in recent years, he has remained largely silent on issues of values and morality. He strongly defended President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, questioning the motives of those who sought to link private morality with public service. Moreover, he has moved steadily leftward on the abortion issue as he has risen to national prominence in the Democratic Party. Once known as a pro-life Democrat, he now goes out of his way to defend "a woman's right to choose"-even if lately he can't bring himself to utter the word abortion (see sidebar).
As he steps out of the president's shadow for the first time in seven years, however, Mr. Gore seems intent on defining himself as a faith-friendly candidate. Indeed, one of his campaign advisers, Elaine Kamarck, said after the New Hampshire speech that the GOP "should not have a lock on religious issues ... the Democratic Party is going to take back God this time."
From New Hampshire, Mr. Gore traveled to Atlanta, where his attempt to "take back God" began in earnest. Speaking before the Salvation Army, the vice president insisted that "freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion." He said faith-based organizations (FBOs) could help solve social problems in a way that secular, governmental approaches could not. And he promised that a Gore administration would help FBOs in their mission.
"There is a hunger that goes even deeper than the hunger for material security," he told the audience in Atlanta. Thanks to the efforts of religious believers, he said, "We are becoming an America which is not just better off, but better; where we are serving-as I believe God meant us to-as a light to this ever-shrinking world."
Though many Christians welcomed the new, faith-friendly emphasis of a party traditionally seen as championing secularism, Mr. Gore's speech raised as many questions as it answered. He said he wanted to extend public funds to FBOs as long as they don't "proselytize"-proselytizing is another word for engaging in evangelism.
Yet elsewhere in the same speech, he suggested that the religious element is, in fact, the very thing that makes FBOs successful. He told the story of a woman named Herlinda who had given up on ever holding steady employment until she entered a mentoring program that included prayer and Bible study. "Faith gave her a new feeling of self-worth, of purpose," Mr. Gore said, "something no other program, no matter how technically sophisticated, could give her."
If faith is the irreplaceable element in Herlinda's success story, why restrict FBOs from sharing that faith in order to qualify for public funds? Even some of Mr. Gore's traditional allies wondered how he could make it all work.
"How can a religious institution counsel without proselytizing?" wondered Terri Schroeder of the American Civil Liberties Union. "How can you provide juvenile services without some level of coercion? How can we have any accountability for how our money is spent given the traditional separation of church and state?"
Similar questions are certain to follow as Mr. Gore tries to make the Democratic Party more attractive to religious believers. Liberal critics will accuse him of selling out, while conservative opponents try to pin him down on specifics. Gary Bauer, for instance, last week challenged Mr. Gore to "walk the walk" by publicly supporting the effort to return the Ten Commandments to the public schools.
"Earlier this month, the vice president said 'the moment has come for Washington to catch up to the rest of America' on issues of personal belief. Isn't this the perfect issue to demonstrate that commitment?" Mr. Bauer asked.
For a candidate who has only recently begun to profess his faith in public religion, the baptism by fire is about to begin.