Cover Story

Wooing worshippers

"Wooing worshippers" Continued...

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

As for the smaller Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, where the president worshipped during his years as governor, "By the standards of Texas Methodism it would be moderate," Mr. Tooley said.

Conservative evangelical leaders like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledge that, while they consider the president one of their own, his church background has left him with some questionable beliefs, including suggestions that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

"We must remember President Bush is Commander in Chief, not Theologian in Chief," says Mr. Land, who heads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "He is a man of strong religious faith, he has been going to Methodist churches for 20 years. How good can his theology be? I mean, just what is the theology of modern Methodism? It's like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree."

Still, Mr. Land says, the president's political beliefs are strongly shaped by religious beliefs that are anathema to most Methodist leaders. He regularly turns for advice to prominent evangelicals such as Franklin Graham and Tony Evans rather than the hierarchy of his own church. "This president is a thoroughgoing evangelical himself, and there are a lot more thoroughgoing evangelicals around him. Let me draw a contrast: In the Reagan administration, there were a lot of people around him to keep Reagan from being himself. There are no such people in significant roles in the Bush administration."

In his own way, Sen. Kerry, too, bucks the leadership of a church that frowns on some of his beliefs. When some parish priests across the country announced this summer they would not serve communion to politicians who supported abortion, Sen. Kerry simply stopped attending Mass many Sundays on the road. At his nominating convention in Boston, he broke with tradition by refusing to invite the local archbishop to give an invocation.

Sen. Kerry passed over Sean P. O'Malley, Boston's outspokenly pro-life archbishop. Instead, Sen. Kerry's far more liberal priest, John Ardis of the Paulist Center, a largely autonomous congregation operated by the Paulist Fathers, gave the benediction that closed the convention. Sensitive to controversy over Sen. Kerry's pro-abortion stance, his priest offered a prayer to the candidate's liking. "Help us to seek unity in diversity; give us the courage to embrace each person as our neighbor, regardless of gender, race, or ethnic origin, regardless of sexual orientation, religious tradition, or age. . . . Give counsel to world leaders so they may never again declare an unjust war."

Besides, perhaps, the simple fact that he is allowed to take communion there, Sen. Kerry attends the Paulist Center because "he aligns himself with the social justice aspects of our ministry which we've become well known for," Mr. Ardis says.

James Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist who has often attended Mass with John Kerry, wrote on Sept. 28 that "across the years I have observed the senator at prayer, and I have some sense of the seriousness he brings to his devotion." The columnist claimed that Sen. Kerry's positions "mark him not as a renegade Catholic" but as one among "Catholics who understand that moral theology is not a fixed set of answers given once and for all . . . but an ongoing quest for truths that remain elusive. In the area of sexuality, for example, from which so many hot-button issues arise, it is clear that the human race is undergoing a massive cultural mutation, posing excruciating problems that human beings have never faced before."

In other words, Sen. Kerry seeks a respite from the socially conservative teaching he might get at his local parish church. "The Paulist order tends to be very liberal, and the Paulist Center in Boston tends to represent about as far to the left as you can go and still call yourself a Catholic," says Phillip Lawler, editor of the conservative Catholic World Report. "It's sort of a halfway house for lapsed Catholics."

Sen. Kerry may not be lapsed, but he doesn't appear very faithful to millions of pro-life, pro-family Catholics. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, espouses social views that endear him to many conservative Catholics while alienating many liberal Protestants. The denominational politics that influenced the Kennedy election in 1960 seem long gone. More influential now is the divide between those with faith in a fixed theological constitution (although believers differ about specific interpretations and ways to arrive at them) and those who believe that social changes over the centuries make ancient teaching less important than contemporary "progressive" thought.


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