Lawmakers disagree over religion's place in politics

Source: Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
Date: June 26, 2002

Every Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, before the frenzy of heated debates and rising tempers comes to a boil on the floor of Congress, about 50 Democrats and Republicans shuffle into a small meeting room to share what they have in common.

The opportunity to pray together to a common God allows some Congressmen to strengthen their beliefs and their faith in one another, said Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who will not name a tie to a particular religion, but only will say he is a follower of Jesus.

"It creates some civility," he said. "If America could see that I think they would feel better (about politics)."

But as the country watches yet another world conflict unfold, some studies are showing that America’s focus increasingly is turning toward religion.

About 65 percent of Americans believe religion plays a significant role in most wars and conflicts in the world, according to a survey released in March by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Forum Research Center for People and the Press.

The report, which questioned the beliefs of more than 2,000 Americans, also found that while 58 percent of those surveyed believe America’s strength to be rooted in religious faith, 60 percent do not believe Washington’s elected officials uphold basic ethical standards.

DeMint said he thinks Americans do not form their opinions of political leaders from a fair perspective.

Americans only see the people who cause trouble and start fights, DeMint said. And as elections roll around, those are the ones who stand out most in people’s minds.

"If we could take 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats out of Congress, then the whole look of Congress would be different," he said.

Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said he agrees that politicians gain a bad

reputation from the deeds of a select few, and that the majority of people he works with every day have strong morals and a deep-rooted faith.

Edwards, who is a Methodist, said although elected leaders should retain their faith while in office, religious beliefs must be pushed to the sidelines when voting on issues.

"I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state, and that does not mean keeping people of faith out of government, but it does mean keeping our government out of our faith," he said.

And Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who is a Roman Catholic, said he agrees that religion should not overshadow leaders’ decisions while in office.

"There’s a melding (of religion into politics) without an overt influence," he said. "My bigger responsibility is not to the church, it’s to the 600,000 people I represent."

But other Congressmen, such as DeMint, said they cannot separate their religious convictions from politics.

"I think it’s a huge problem that the government is getting involved with more and more areas of our lives," DeMint said. "If federal funding is given to a daycare, does that mean Bible stories can no longer be read there?"

Edwards said most people support prayer in schools until they hear that the religion is different from what they practice.

“That’s why I’ve opposed amendments to bring back government organized school prayers,” he said.