Religious leaders attack the `hypocrites' on the hustings

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The Independent Online
IN A political intervention without precedent, an alliance of US religious leaders urged candidates in next year's presidential race to stop parading their personal faith, because it risked sowing dangerous cultural discord and smacked of hypocrisy.

They also challenged the view that religious charities should become a big provider of social services, as several presidential hopefuls have advocated.

The group, from the Interfaith Alliance, included President Bill Clinton's pastor, the Rev Philip Wogaman, and the Chief Rabbi, Arthur Hertzberg, as well as a Catholic nun. The alliance was formed as a non-party counter- weight to the fundamentalist Christian Coalition, but its leaders addressed yesterday's warning equally to candidates of both parties, singling out the Democratic front-runner, Vice-President Al Gore, and the Republican favourite, George W Bush, by name. In a statement read by its executive director, the Rev Welton Gaddy, the alliance took issue with the way in which references to God and professions of faith increasingly punctuated campaign speeches.

The first danger, they said, was to the constitutional recognition of "religious pluralism", noting that both Mr Gore and Mr Bush, "use the language of faith to suggest a consensus among people of faith that simply does not exist" in today's America.

Secondly, they noted the apparent mismatch between candidates' religious statements and their personal behaviour.

Mr Bush, they said, alluding both to his performance as governor of Texas and to his evasiveness when questioned about his past, "speaks of the importance of living by faith and the changed values in his life that resulted from an experience of faith. However, many in the faith community question his rigid endorsement of the death penalty and his resistance to speaking openly about a wide range of other issues."

Mr Gore, they said, "stresses the importance of the work of the faith community in solving problems. Yet many in the faith community question why his charitable contributions to support this work have remained so minimal."

The Gores' tax returns for 1997 created a political furore when they showed donations to charity of just a few dozen dollars. Such disparities, the alliance said, could lead to a harmful "disconnect" between candidates and voters.

Thirdly, the alliance said - without directly accusing either candidate of direct misrepresentation - "a candidate's talk about faith as a campaign strategy smacks of the manipulation of faith for political gain", which "leads to bad religion and bad politics".

The alliance also extended its criticism to the pledges by Mr Gore and Mr Bush, among others, to give far more public money to so-called faith- based organisations to enable them to provide welfare, training and other services. Mr Gaddy said it was "resistant" to the involvement of such organisations as "conduits for federal money, even for a good end".