The Nation's Pulse

Pew 54, Where Are You?

Where America's presidents go to kneel.

By 1.22.08

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Most Sundays that I am fortunate enough to be in our nation's capital, I go to St. John's Church. It is an unassuming, small yellow building, just steps from the White House.

Every president since James Madison has attended services there, at least occasionally, and inauguration begins there. Like most places in Washington, it is a political place. Sermons are filled with political war stories, and the 54th pew is reserved for the president.

During the hymns, I often glance over at that pew, thinking about all the people who have sat there, and how they have changed the world. They are part of a short history that has made America so great; they are the reason I stand in church thanking God that I live in America.

As I glance to the 54th pew this Sunday, I can't help but think about the future, and as I turn more and more attention to the race that will decide who will kneel there next, it is impossible to escape the fact that religion will play a role in getting him there.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the busiest and most significant presidents in American history, would sit down at night after concluding the business of the day -- be it the Louisiana Purchase or the war between England and France -- and carefully cut passages from two Bibles with a razor. He removed all the miracles of Jesus, leaving a religion that appealed to his strong sense of reason and the laws of nature. He spent a considerable amount of time with the Bible, carving out a religion that made sense to him.

Yet, throughout his entire presidency, he kept his religious views out of sight, veiled from a public that was more captivated with Jefferson's declaration of "a wall of separation of church and state," a phrase so ubiquitous today that many think it appears in the constitution. It doesn't.

This is a far cry from the situation by the time Jimmy Carter ran for President some 170 years later. He made no attempt to hide his religion like Jefferson. Writing in his own book, Living Faith, Carter said "government aspires to embody and defend values that are shared with religion."

John F. Kennedy battled concerns that his Catholic faith would interfere with his presidency and that the Papacy would indirectly run the country. While Catholics still turned out for Kennedy in great numbers, his Catholic faith was his weakness; yet four decades later, John Kerry's conflicting views with the Catholic Church became his vulnerability.

What changed? And more importantly, what does it mean for 2008?

RELIGION HAS meant more to voters as time has progressed. A binary logistic regression using National Election Survey Data shows that a white male who regularly attends religious services was just 4 percent more likely than a non-churchgoer to vote for Eisenhower in 1952, the first year the poll was taken, but was over 17 percent more likely to vote for George W. Bush in 2000.

This change over time means religion will have even stronger implications in 2008. On the Republican side you have a Mormon, Mitt Romney, who outspent Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, twenty-to-one in Iowa, but still lost.

On the other hand, you have Rudy Giuliani, who wrote in his book, "I support a woman's right to choose ... I proposed legislation that entitled same-sex couples to many of the same rights as married couples ... it became one of the nation's most comprehensive regarding domestic partnerships."

Contrary to popular belief, voters do not stick to one political party. We learned this in the elections of Jimmy Carter and even Bill Clinton. This says a lot for a primary that includes Barack Obama who timed his book, The Audacity of Hope, perfectly for the election. As he put it, "There are a whole lot of religious people in America, including the majority of Democrats."

That message apparently hasn't gotten to Hillary Clinton, who has lacked religious zeal on the campaign trail. Bringing up God has seems forced and politically calculated. She lacks the relaxed and confident attitude her husband showed as he carried his larger-than-ordinary Bible out of church, followed by dozens of cameras.

For the most part, voters are justified in examining a candidate's religion. That is because the policies of presidents are based on their personal beliefs, many of which are rooted in religion. Early in his career, Thomas Jefferson introduced a resolution calling for a "Day of Fasting and Prayer" in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and he called for a day of "Public and Solemn Thanksgiving and Prayer" as Governor of Virginia. Jimmy Carter greatly favored outlawing Medicaid funding for abortion. President Bush created the office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives.

In short, religion matters. It matters in the campaign and it matters in the White House. America is among the most religious countries in the world, with well over 90 percent of its population professing to believe in God.

As time goes on, we see an electorate that calls for openness in spiritual beliefs and for religious consideration in policy-making. And as this demand grows, candidates are quick to embrace it.

Almost exactly one year from now, inauguration will begin at St. John's Church. Someone else will kneel in the 54th pew. No doubt he or she will think about the day ahead and reflect on the long and bumpy road it took to get there.

As for me, no matter who wins, I will still glance at the 54th pew and thank God that I live in America.

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About the Author

Russ Ferguson is a lawyer and writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.