I HAVE BEEN FOLLOWING John Kerry's career for 22 years, ever since his 1982 run for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. I have encountered him in small private gatherings and in large public settings. I have spoken about him often with people who know him well. I have read innumerable accounts of his non-political passions and pastimes. And if at any point during all those years you had asked me whether I thought Kerry was a religious man, I would have answered without hesitation: "No, not at all."
I would have had plenty of company, too. A Time magazine poll in June found that only 7 percent of voters would describe Kerry as a man of strong religious faith. But over the past few months -- ever since that poll came out, come to think of it -- a whole new Kerry has emerged.
The senator who had never shown much public interest in religion suddenly can't seem to stop talking about it. Biblical quotations now lace his speeches. He makes a point of referring to himself as a former altar boy. He frequently attends church -- particularly churches in battleground states. He (or his staff) put it about that on the campaign trail he wears a crucifix and carries a rosary, a prayer book, and a St. Christopher medal.
At the Democratic convention in Boston, religious references abounded -- from Barack Obama's keynote address ("We worship an awesome God in the Blue States") to Senator Joseph Biden's reference to "Joshua's trumpets" and "the walls of Jericho" to former Senator Max Cleland's introduction of Kerry on the final night ("The Bible tells me that no greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends"). In his own acceptance speech, Kerry declared that "faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday."
And since then, the "Religification of John Kerry," as it is called by Steven Waldman, the editor of Beliefnet, has grown even more pronounced.
Over and over, the Democratic nominee indicts President Bush by quoting from the Book of James -- "What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? . . . Faith without works is dead." When he was asked, during one debate with Bush, what role faith would play in his policy decisions, he answered in part: "Everything is a gift from the Almighty. . . I went to a church school and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are: 'Love the Lord your God with all your mind, your body, and your soul,' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
On Sunday, this flood of God-talk reached something of a crescendo, when Kerry managed to quote not only the usual passage from James, but three of the four Gospels, the Ten Commandments, and even "Amazing Grace." Part of his message was about the sustaining power of faith, but most of the religious references were connected to a vigorous denunciation of the Bush administration. As The New York Times reported. it yesterday, "Kerry said that Christians believed in caring for the sick, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and stopping violence but that the administration was not heeding those teachings.
"'Oh, no, they didn't choose the least among us, they chose the most powerful among us,' he said. 'They keep on thinking it's the most powerful who deserve the most, some kind of entitlement.'"
Voters will have to judge for themselves whether Kerry's newly prominent religiosity is genuine or merely a facade adopted for political purposes. Certainly those political purposes are compelling -- according to an August poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 85 percent of Americans say religion is important in their lives and 72 percent say it is important to them that a president have strong religious beliefs.
But there is something wrong, it seems to me, with Kerry's glib equation of higher public spending and more lavish government programs with fulfilling one's religious obligations. He cited Matthew 25:40 -- "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me" -- and interpreted it to mean that "the ethical test of a good society is how it treats its most vulnerable members." That would be a reasonable understanding if Kerry had meant that each of us individually is called upon to reach out to those in need.
But Kerry instead turned Jesus' admonition into little more than a call for expanding the welfare state and increasing government regulation. "That's why we have to raise the minimum wage, ensure equal pay, and finish the job of welfare reform," he said. He quoted an earlier verse in Matthew ("I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me a drink") and read it to mean that America must "take action now to cut the cost of energy so that already overburdened seniors in the colder parts of our country can afford heat in the winter."
I'm not an expert on Christian thought, but it seems unlikely to me that Jesus was taking a position on minimum wage laws or energy conservation when he called on his followers to do more for "the least of these." When James said that faith without works is dead, he wasn't urging politicians to spend taxpayers' money. Jesus and James were insisting that the true measure of a man's compassion lies in how much he gives of himself -- how deeply he reaches into his own pocket, how generously he gives of his own time, to help the troubled and the weak.
As it happens, I have picked this particular bone with Kerry before. During his Senate re-election campaign in 1996, I wrote a column contrasting his denunciation of Republican greed and heartlessness with his own record of charitable giving. During the previous six years, it turned out, Kerry had given less than $5,000 to charity -- a minuscule seven-10ths of 1 percent of his gross income for the period. In some years he had given nothing at all; in others, his charitable donations added up to only a few hundred dollars. During the same six years, his Republican opponent, former Governor William Weld, had donated to charity nearly $165,000, or more than 15 percent of his gross income.
"There is something very wrong with a man who makes more than $120,000 a year," I wrote then, "and gives only scraps to help those who are less fortunate than he."
In the years since that embarrassing revelation, Kerry's charitable donations have increased significantly. On his tax return last year, he reported giving $43,735 to charity.
Each of us can do more to love our neighbor and to live up to the Judeo-Christian values that American history so strongly affirms. But promiscuous God-talk in presidential campaigns doesn't elevate our spiritual profile. It feeds the suspicion that religion is being invoked for cynical political reasons. Is Kerry right with his God? I certainly hope so. But for nearly 22 years he managed to keep that part of his life extremely private. I wish he would have kept it that way
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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