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Good reasons why Bradley won’t talk religion


Why won’t Bill Bradley talk about his religion? Perhaps the level of discussion so far has scared him off. Perhaps.

George W. Bush has been generally reviled for his answer to the debate question on his favorite political philosopher, whom he identified smugly as “Christ,” who had “changed his heart.” Then the governor slipped into his schoolboy, shoulders-tucked-up slouch, assuming correctly that once he had said Jesus the discussion was over and that his opponents who came up with lesser beings like John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt had been outclassed.

He was half right. The Mormon Orrin Hatch was maneuvered into backing Jesus, and Garry Bauer, whose real reason for running is to gain name recognition as spokesman for Christian fundamentalism, and who might have named Jesus anyway, had been beaten to the punch.

Among the Democrats, former Sen. Bill Bradley says religion is private and he won’t talk about it, and Vice President Al Gore agrees -- but, he told CBS’ “60 Minutes,” he is a born-again Christian and asks himself, faced with key decisions, “What would Jesus do?”

No one on “60 Minutes” was religiously literate enough to ask Gore whether Jesus would bomb Belgrade neighborhoods, continue sanctions on Cuba and Iraq or pull the switch on the electric chair.

Bush deserves the derision his answer has evoked, but not because of the answer. Rather, it came across as a ploy, because he refused to elaborate on what that meant -- either you get Jesus or you don’t -- as if the man Jesus and his message have no ambiguity, no intellectual and specific moral demands for which men and women, even during the last 20 years, have been willing to die.

In short, the problem is not that the issue of a candidate’s religious beliefs has entered the campaign but that their real religious beliefs have not.

Among the eight Republican and Democratic candidates floated before us in TV debates, there must be one, we say to ourselves, whom, because he acts from moral principles, we can believe. For most Americans, moral principles have roots in either religious or humanistic convictions, which a political leader, if he has thought about them, ought to be able to articulate.

When we don’t know enough about where some of these candidates are coming from intellectually, the religion question is a way to find out. Thus John McCain’s memoir, Faith of Our Fathers, is ingeniously constructed as, in the broad sense, a religious testimony. His “faith” is implanted in the several sources most Americans revere: ancestors, comrades and God. Without overdoing it, he portrays his imprisonment as a quasi-religious experience; and he prudently ends the story with his release, avoiding his responsibility for the break-up of his marriage and his entanglement in the Keating Five scandal.

Meanwhile, because political writers rarely study religion and religion writers seldom cover national campaigns, questions with theological implications are snuffed out. A candidate may say, for example, that both evolution and creationism should be taught in public schools, and no one would ask the more important question, which would reveal more about how his mind works: Does he see a conflict between belief in God and evolution?

Or, if Orrin Hatch is a Mormon, why didn’t he name Brigham Young or Joseph Smith? Alan Keyes is a Catholic; but his deepest conviction seems to be a hatred of the income tax. He is antiabortion, but where is he on the death penalty? Has he read the American bishops’ letters on economic justice and the arms race?

At first glance, Bill Bradley’s silence on the subject of religion is mysterious. Like McCain, his strong appeal is his authenticity; and, to a degree greater than McCain, Bradley has a reputation of idealism and rectitude going back to his college days.

Since Bradley gives the impression of speaking from his inner core, it would seem to make sense for Bradley to share those convictions, at least to some degree. Why would he not? Two TV news shows have observed in passing that his silence seems strange, given his “evangelical background,” without explaining what that means.

There are several possible explanations for his silence. One, he may really believe that religion is “private,” not something politicians should talk about in public. Two, he’s hiding something. Three, his opinions would lose him votes. Four, all of the above.

The irony is that his religious beliefs are already on record, in John McPhee’s 1965 New Yorker profile of him as a Princeton College student, published as A Sense of Where You Are (1978), and in Bradley’s own memoirs, Life on the Run (1972), and the more recent Time Present, Time Past (1996).

Obviously Bradley is not trying to hide his religious history, because Time Present, Time Past spells it out in some detail in his last chapter. But he must suspect that if he tries to talk about it on TV, it will lose him votes. Why?

Partly because it’s complicated, and the TV debate format does not allow for distinctions or complexity. Partly because he is a lapsed fundamentalist. He actively rejected the evangelical Christianity into which he poured his heart and soul during his youth. There’s no way he can tell his story to people who have not read the book, particularly he can’t tell his story within the format TV imposes, without turning off lots of voting Methodists and Baptists, who, in many parts of the country, constitute the American religion.

As a college student and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he taught Sunday school at his Presbyterian church every morning, even when he had returned from an away game at 4:30 a.m. When his peers were already thinking of him as future president of the United States, Bradley told McGhee his only goal was “to set a Christian example by implementing my feelings within the structure of society.” Before every game he would turn on his hi-fi and play “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”

The basic definition of a “born-again” Christian is one who has had a “conversion experience,” in many ways similar to those experienced in the Great Awakening at the beginning of the 19th century. Reduced to a state of helplessness by some tragedy or sense of sin, we realize our utter dependence on God and turn to him as savior. This personal encounter with Jesus Christ, a “conversion,” lifts us up, and we are “born again.”

In high school, inspired by attending a Fellowship of Christian Athletes convention, Bradley preached a sermon in his Presbyterian church. His conversion came as a Princeton freshman, when, as a small-town boy reduced to tears by flunking French, he turned to God for help.

His combined status as a star athlete and religious believer made him a new kind of celebrity, but it also created problems. Fundamentalists started making demands he couldn’t satisfy, he was shocked by the absence of black athletes in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and he began to see his fellow evangelicals as narrow-minded.

At Oxford he found himself not believing his own words when he participated in a Billy Graham crusade; when he heard an Oxford minister preach in defense of white power in Rhodesia, he walked out, “never to return.”

Since then, Bradley has not become an atheist, but seems to have sewn together his own private creed from elements of his “old faith,” the Westminster Catechism, the erudition of Catholic priests, and the gospel singing of the African-American Episcopal church, which brings tears to his eyes. When he asks himself the big questions of life as he stares out “on moonless nights with a sky full of stars,” he knows he is anchored “in nature, in God’s grace and in humanity’s potential to grow.”

He does not shrink, at least in his book, from moralistic rhetoric, like, “Too many people are trapped in a hedonism exacerbated by wealth; and even the poorest, most desperate parts of our society are in a grip of the pleasure/money syndrome.” That a man planning to run for president in 1999 would attack America’s deepest love -- pleasure -- in 1996 is exhilarating.

We can well imagine what would happen if he tried to explain all these ideas in 30 seconds. First, as we saw when Bush said Jesus changed his heart, few journalists know enough about religion to ask the follow-up questions. Second, since the press has only a few categories in which religious-political issues can be framed, he could look forward to headlines: Bradley Calls Religious Right Narrow-Minded, Hits Money and Pleasure. Demands for apologies would follow, and for days no one would ask about anything else.

A panel on Howard Kurtz’s Sunday morning CNN media discussion show, “Reliable Sources,” agreed that the religious issue is not going away. It will be hard for Bradley to not talk religion when voters learn what he has already said.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is NCR’s media critic.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000