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Democrats seek winning mix of faith, politics

President Bush is a Methodist

WASHINGTON (Reuters) --The Democratic field seeking the White House in 2004 includes four Catholics, an Orthodox Jew, a black preacher and three other Protestants, none of whom is likely to be as overtly religious in office as President Bush.

"I have the sense that not a single one of the nine Democratic candidates would continue the faith-based initiatives in the White House," said Shirley Anne Warshaw of the Center for the Study of the Presidency at Gettysburg College.

Bush, a Methodist who reads the Bible every day, opens Cabinet meetings with a prayer and sometimes prays in the Oval Office, has sought to allow faith-based groups to receive federal dollars to deliver social services, raising questions about the constitutional separation of church and state.

"He is absolutely the most overtly religious president to the degree that he has incorporated his religious beliefs into programs within the federal government," Warshaw said.

Each of the Democrats vying for the right to challenge Bush next year has reaffirmed his or her faith, refusing to cede spirituality to the Republicans. All have vowed not to mix religion and government.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean describes himself as "a nice New England Congregationalist."

Raised an Episcopalian, Dean switched after a dispute 25 years ago over a bike path. The church refused to cede control 1 1/2 miles of railroad bed needed for the trail.

"I'm comfortable talking about my faith but I don't bring it up unless I'm asked," Dean said during a recent conversation aboard his chartered campaign jet. "My religion does not inform my public policy, but it does inform my values."

'The same God'

Bush, who has credited God with turning his life around some 17 years ago by helping him to give up alcohol, named Jesus as his favorite philosopher during a 2000 presidential debate.

"I think what you had in 2000 may have been unique," Democratic contender Wesley Clark said during a debate in Iowa this week. "Maybe President Bush had a compelling personal story ... But the Republican Party does not have the monopoly on faith in this country."

Bush's religious references, especially in connection with the Iraq war, have raised eyebrows in Europe where most leaders have a more secular bent.

He has gone to some lengths to try to dispel any notion that the war on terrorism after September 11, 2001, is a Christian versus Muslim battle, marking the start of Ramadan at the White House, meeting with religious leaders and visiting a mosque.

"I believe we worship the same God," Bush declared during a news conference in London last week, alarming some members of the Christian conservative base that helped elect him.

Clark is ecumenically complex. His father was Jewish, but Clark did not know that until long after his death. The retired four-star general was raised a Baptist, but became a Catholic like his wife. Now, he goes to Presbyterian services although he has not renounced Catholicism.

"I do pray," he said. "I do believe in the good Lord. He's been a very important influence in my life and I'm not afraid to say that."

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Methodist, prays every day but says the president of the United States "should not be setting policy for the country based on his or her faith."

Barriers broken

Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt's strong Baptist beliefs helped him through the trauma of his son's struggle with a deadly form of childhood cancer. On the campaign trail, he calls Matt, now in his 30s, as "a gift of God."

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, is a practicing Catholic who says he and his wife, ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry, "debate and struggle" with some of their feelings about public policy versus the teachings of the church.

But Kerry said he was "deeply, deeply committed" to the notion that that the founding fathers had articulated a "clear" separation between church and state.

Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, both longshots for the Democratic presidential nomination, list their religion as Catholic, although both are divorced, favor abortion rights and support opening marriage to same-sex couples.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, another long-shot, began preaching in kindergarten and became an ordained Pentecostal minister at 13. His fiery sermonizing has prompted questions about whether he is preaching or campaigning.

Of all the Democratic candidates, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew and the first of his faith on a major party ticket when he was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, most clearly represents what can happen when the worlds of religion and politics intersect.

Lieberman does not campaign on Saturdays, but has said he would break the Sabbath if there were a crisis.



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