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Keeping the faiths

National | CAMPAIGN '04: From New Age to ecumenism to Pentecostalism, the Democratic candidates for president have a wide variety of religious beliefs-but they are unified on one point: their party's abortion dogma

Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

AMERICANS CARE ABOUT THE religious beliefs of their elected officials. According to a 2000 Pew Research Center poll, 70 percent of voters want their president to be religious. A more recent Pew poll showed that 41 percent want politicians to talk more about their religion, with nearly two-thirds approving of the way President Bush openly talks about his religious beliefs.

So what about the Democrats seeking his office? What are their religious beliefs? Earlier Democratic candidates-Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and even Al Gore-were comfortable talking about their religion. Today's candidates have tended to be reticent on the subject, but some, recognizing the importance of the issue to voters especially in the Southern primaries, are coming out of the closet about what they believe.

So here, based on published reports, interviews, and a Beliefnet.com study, are where the candidates stand.

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The unchurched candidate

Howard Dean does not go to church. He was raised Episcopalian. After marrying a Jewish woman, they considered going Unitarian, but decided to let their children choose for themselves. They chose Judaism. Mr. Dean dropped his membership in the Episcopal Church when the local congregation opposed the building of a bike path through the church's property. He calls himself a Congregationalist, but actually no longer goes to church at all. (Except, he says, for political events, such as the worship service rallies at African-American churches that have become a hallmark of Democratic campaigns.)

Mr. Dean does say that even though he doesn't go to church, he is still a Christian, that he reads the Bible and prays. This, of course, is a typical line heard by pastors working with the unchurched.

Recently, Mr. Dean has resolved to talk more about Jesus and spiritual issues, especially as he campaigns in the South. But his lack of churchgoing shows. Jesus, he told The Boston Globe, "was a person who set an extraordinary example." His favorite book of the New Testament, he told reporters, is Job.

The liberal magazine The New Republic was more on the mark with its cover story in December titled "Howard Dean's Religion Problem." Quoting him as saying that "my religion doesn't inform my public policy," it concludes that Mr. Dean is "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history."

The New Age candidate

Dennis Kucinich is a devotee of the New Age movement. After he was down and out from being voted out of office as mayor of Cleveland, Mr. Kucinich became friends with Shirley MacLaine, the actress and New Age guru, who helped him attain enlightenment and who has become one of his biggest financial backers.

He is a vegan who is quoted by The Chicago Tribune as wishing that everyone would follow his example in respecting "the sacredness of all species." His speeches are full of references to cosmic oneness, the interrelatedness of the universe, and mystical spirituality.

Here is a sample, quoted by Beliefnet, on the American Founders who, he says, "were immersed in contemplation of a world beyond our experience, one of spirit, of mysticism, one which saw the potential of the country as unfolding in a multidimensional way."

The ecumenical candidate

Wesley Clark was raised Baptist, but his father, who died when he was 4, was Jewish and his mother was Methodist. He converted to Roman Catholicism but presently attends a Presbyterian church. He can click "all of the above" on religious surveys.

His interviews do show him to be a religious man, especially his accounts of how his wartime experiences strengthened his faith, particularly when he was wounded in Vietnam. He speaks about prayer and the Bible and trust in the Lord like someone who knows what they entail.

Mr. Clark said that his move to Catholicism was sparked by his disgust at the anti-military sermons he kept hearing from the Methodist and Baptist churches he was attending while stationed in England. He became interested in Catholicism from his girlfriend whom he would later marry, and he sought out a priest in Vietnam who gave him religious instruction and brought him into the church.

In an interview with Beliefnet, he said that he stopped attending his Catholic congregation, again, because the sermons were too anti-war. Besides, he missed the Protestant hymns. He and his wife regularly attend Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Ark., though they retain their Catholicism and occasionally go to Mass.

His ecumenical sensibility, he indicated, comes from being used to the interdenominational services in the military.

The nominal Catholic candidate

John Kerry is a Catholic. His grandparents were Jewish converts. Nevertheless, he is strongly pro-abortion.

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