Bible Thumping Makes A
Comeback On US
Campaign Trail
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 scandal.
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.