Let me tell you the story of a wide-eyed boy who loved God. He was a child born to privilege and packed off to boarding school, where he curbed his loneliness by drawing comfort and sustenance from his church. As an 11-year-old, he wrote letters to his sister reminding her to say her prayers. He eagerly participated in the Sunday rituals of his Christian faith. He helped the men who ministered to his flock with their pastoral duties, and his devotion to them was so great that he briefly considered joining the clergy. Instead, he grew up to be a successful politician who ran for president.

His name is John Forbes Kerry.

The people who claim to know about these sorts of things keep telling us that Kerry is the presidential candidate with a religion problem. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a column pointing out that while Bill Clinton "exudes religiosity," a Time magazine poll revealed that only 7 percent of Americans consider Kerry a man "of strong religious faith," which Brooks wrote is "mind-boggling" and "a catastrophic number." Steven Waldman made a similar argument in Slate, pointing out that most Democrats are religious even if they don't attend church as much as Republicans, and that Kerry's reluctance to talk about religion is out of step with this. He asked (rhetorically): "Will Kerry's Democrats act like the Party of Secularists even if they aren't?"

There's some truth to the Brooks/Waldman critique of Kerry. Most American voters are religious, of course, and Kerry probably would benefit politically from some sort of soft-focus effort that better explained how his religious convictions buttress his policy views. But it is also worth asking how comfortable voters are with the Bush approach of mixing rigid Christian precepts with government policy in a pluralistic and diverse society, or alternately, with politicians using religion as a political prop to sway the minds of wavering voters.

PBS's documentary series Frontline produced a fascinating look at Bush's religious faith earlier this year. The most interesting comment came from Doug Wead, an evangelical and a Bush family friend. "There's no question that the president's faith is calculated," Wead said. "And there's no question that the president's faith is real. I would say I don't know and George Bush doesn't know when he's operating out of a genuine sense of his faith and when it's calculated."

Wead's admission goes to the heart of what Brooks and Waldman are arguing, because what they are really asking is this: Why won't John Kerry act more like George Bush? Or, to put it even more pointedly, why isn't John Kerry marketing the hell out of his religious faith in order to gain political advantage? Bush, as we know, wears his faith on his sleeve. He talks a lot about God, and has set out to infuse government policy with Christian doctrine. He may not have been particularly pious when he was younger, during the period when he still loved the clink of ice cubes in a highball glass (admittedly, a beautiful sound), but he was born-again after a 1986 talk with the ubiquitous Billy Graham, something he (and his endless array of holier-than-thou surrogates) makes sure voters know.

Kerry does not do this, though the former altar boy does still attend church and take Communion. In this, he appears to be more devout than the majority of Americans. In the Time survey, only 47 percent attended religious services once a week or more. Kerry, in other words, is a man of religious faith. In this, he is probably in exactly the right position with respect to the majority of Americans.

So, in response to Brooks and Waldman, could it be that Kerry is not foolishly blinkered about the role of religion in American society, but actually does not want to sully the essential nature of his faith in a cynical ploy for partisan advantage? Is it not possible that as voters, through the natural progression of the campaign, come to learn more about him, they will come to appreciate Kerry's quieter approach to faith relative to a man who believes that every decision he makes is sanctioned by God? Might it not be the case, the arguments of clever commentators notwithstanding, that the actual religion problem belongs to George Bush?

sandeep@thestranger.com

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