- WASHINGTON (AFP) - Bible-thumping is making a comeback on the US campaign
trail, as presidential candidates of all persuasions seek the moral high
ground after a year of sex scandals and school shootings.
- Conservative Republicans have been courting
the religious right ever since Ronald Reagan coaxed them into political
action in the 1980s, prompting dire warnings about inroads into the constitutional
separation of church and state.
- But now even liberal Democrats are calling
for an injection of the sacred into the secular.
- "If you elect me president, the
faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in
my administration," Vice President Al Gore said last week in promoting
so-called "charitable choice" programs.
- The plan would grant religious groups
federal funds to cope with a host of social ills, ranging from drug addiction
to unemployment and homelessness.
- Gore's only rival for the Democratic
nomination so far, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, also supports
faith-based programs, which are a departure from the party's traditional
opposition to public funding for any religious activities.
- Republican favorite, Texas Governor George
W. Bush, and second runner-up, Elizabeth Dole, have long embraced church
groups, advocating school prayer and public funds for religious education.
- But as with many in the huge field of
Republicans vying to replace President Bill Clinton, Bush and Dole are
making personal pitches that focus on a theme of spiritual awakening.
- "I grew up in the church, but I
didn't always walk the walk," Bush, the son and name sake of the former
US president, said at a recent Baptist conference in Texas.
- "But there came a point in my life
when I felt something was missing," said Bush, who has alluded to
youthful indiscretions in an attempt to pre-empt any scandals that may
surface during the race.
- Dole, the wife of Clinton's 1996 challenger
Bob Dole, has never hinted at any such escapades but she said at a prayer
breakfast last month that she once put her career -- which included two
cabinet posts -- ahead of everything.
- "I had God neatly compartmentalized,
crammed into a crowded file drawer of my life, somewhere between 'gardening'
and 'government,'" said Dole, who now starts her days with prayer
and attends church regularly.
- Former vice president Dan Quayle announced
his candidacy in April vowing to reset America's "moral compass."
He insists the deadly epidemic of high school shootings is evidence of
the need for school prayer and supports public funding for religious education.
- Quayle, who demanded Clinton's resignation
after his Monica Lewinsky affair, is one of several White House hopefuls
who have made public avowals of marital fidelity in the wake of the sex
- During Clinton's impeachment crisis,
Republican Senator and presidential hopeful John McCain made an early damage-control
effort by admitting to his own extra-marital affair.
- But he stressed he was on the rebound
from the five years he served as a Vietnamese prisoner of war and that
such behavior is a thing of the past.
- The American Civil Liberties Union and
scores of interest groups advocating the separation of church and state
have decried the faith-based initiatives proposed on the campaign trails.
- And religious groups are also anxiously
watching the trend.
- "We have real concerns about federal
funding of houses of worship because we don't know of one instance in which
federal dollars aren't followed by federal regulations," said Amber
Kahn, with the Interfaith Alliance coalition of religious groups.
- She said the system could pit churches
against each other in the race for funding and warned that religious groups
could coerce those they serve into espousing their faith.
- Kahn suggested that the personal testimonials
by candidates may be triggered by the "confessional" culture
demonstrated on television talk shows and even Clinton's own public apologies
for the Lewinsky affair.
- But said the movement was misguided.
- "Candidates who are seeking to appear
friendly to faith are misjudging Americans' value for religious liberty
and religious freedom," she said.