The Magazine


Jun 21, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 38 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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THE DAY AFTER THE 1984 REPUBLICAN convention, Ronald Reagan gave a speech to a group of preachers in Dallas in which he ruminated on the role of religion in public life. "The truth is," Reagan said, "that politics and morality are inseparable. . . . Our government needs the church because only those humble enough to admit they are sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive."

Reagan's remarks were considered wildly controversial. "President Reagan today challenged the constitutional separation of church and state," began one of the first wire stories written about the speech. Within hours his political enemies pounced. Challenger Walter Mondale accused Reagan and other members of the "extreme fringe" of engaging in "moral McCarthyism" and of seeking to create a theocracy. Time magazine agreed. "On every major issue," Time concluded, Reagan has "shown a willingness to use government authority to impose sectarian views on the population at large."

The White House recoiled in horror. Under pressure from his advisers, notably James Baker, Reagan all but apologized for getting theological in public. "I was only talking about it because I was speaking at a prayer breakfast," the president told reporters. His next major address on religion, given at a B'nai B'rith convention in Washington a few weeks later, was mostly about the glories of religious pluralism and the "wall in our Constitution separating church and state."

The Dallas speech solidified Reagan's reputation among liberals as a fundamentalist nut, but in retrospect his musings on religion are notable for what they didn't contain. For all his references to God, Reagan didn't elaborate on his personal faith. He didn't describe mandates he had received from on high. He didn't refer to his prayer life or detail his conversion experience. (Nor, in fact, did Reagan go to church very often.) Probably not one American in a hundred remembers, or ever knew, that he is a Presbyterian. To this day, it's not clear what, exactly, Reagan believes about God.

There are few such mysteries left in American politics. Voters now know the spiritual biographies of most of the leading candidates in the 2000 presidential race. They know that Elizabeth Dole began her "total commitment to Christ" while attending a Capitol Hill Bible study. They know that George W. Bush found God after a walk on the beach with Billy Graham. They know that John Kasich turned to a higher power when his parents were killed in a car accident. Just the other day they learned that Al Gore uses his faith to answer "any important question" he faces in life. Voters know a lot more about the religious beliefs of these would-be presidents than they knew about Reagan's. Is it an improvement?

Almost everyone agrees that for some candidates it's a necessity. Polls show that after two Clinton terms, "character" questions will matter far more in the 2000 presidential election than they did in the previous two. Professing religious faith is a quick and effective way for a candidate to establish his bona fides as a decent person. It's also a handy way for Republicans with wobbly stands on abortion and gay rights to mollify social conservatives. (Significantly, the candidates with the strongest positions on issues that religious conservatives care about -- Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes -- almost never talk about their own religious experiences.)

For Al Gore, talking about God is a means to distance himself from his boss -- shorthand, as A. N. Wilson put it in the New York Times, for: "Tipper and I, despite having spent the last seven years in the Clinton Administration, entirely sympathize with those of you who think the White House is morally challenged." Gore began the process in May when he gave a speech in Atlanta in which he endorsed steering federal funds to faith-based social service organizations, an idea that until that point had been promoted almost exclusively by conservatives. The speech received relatively little attention in the press, but the Republicans who read it were shocked. "This is something that would have been outrageous for a Democratic candidate to say a few years ago," says Jeff Bell, a longtime political strategist who is now advising the Bauer campaign. "It would have been unimaginable for Michael Dukakis to have said something like that."