Politics of faith

By Martha Sawyer Allen

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS -- One spring day Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer was working in her office on the first floor of the State Office Building when a minister showed up and told her he was just passing by and thought her office could use some prayer.

"So we stood together and prayed," she said. "It was just great. It was personal, respectful and not offensive."

Kiffmeyer is only one of dozens of state and national public officials who talk openly about their faith these days. It's not just conservative Christian Republicans, such as Kiffmeyer, either.


It's Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, it's President Bush and it's small-town mayors.

These days public officials are talking in public about their faith and how it influences their daily decisions.

Kiffmeyer estimates that she speaks once a week to groups about her faith. Her home church is Zion Christian Church in Big Lake, an independent nondenominational congregation.

Many of these officials say they're not just giving lip service to a new trend. They want public officials to use their faith in forming their public positions.

Creating a theocracy?

While others applaud the openness, they also worry that the United States is dancing close to the edge of creating a theocracy -- a government run by religion -- specifically conservative Christianity.

State Rep. Michael Beard, a freshman Republican representative from Shakopee and publisher of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, said he's happy that evangelical Christians like himself are getting more involved in politics and are having a wider influence.

"There is no one church in charge," he said. "These are just ordinary people whose allegiance is to Jesus.


"Will the church take over the state? No. But will Christian principles take over? Oh, yes. And no one has anything to fear from that."

The Rev. Dean Johnson is a chaplain, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a legislator. The Willmar DFLer said: "I don't think you have to wear your religion on your sleeve. For me to impose my moral and ethical beliefs on everyone can be dangerous."

In the thorny field of church-state relationships, most officials say they are careful about how they talk about their faith's influence in their public jobs. They live, eat and breathe the Constitution and are very aware, they say, of the meaning of the First Amendment: There is no official state religion.

Seeking guidance

When Mary Pawlenty is pondering a particularly difficult decision as a Dakota County district judge, the state's first lady often goes into her office, closes the door and prays for wisdom and guidance.

"I know there are other judges as well as me, to whom it is important to be in a relationship with God because what we do impacts so many lives," she said. She and her husband, Tim, are active in Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, a nationally influential congregation.

When Duluth Mayor Gary Doty vetoed a city council resolution in support of the town's 2001 Gay Pride festival, he said he supported legal rights for the gay community. But he added that his faith tells him that homosexuality is wrong and that he couldn't support a public statement from the city that acknowledged the sexual orientation.

He said he couldn't compromise his "faith and beliefs." He attends Lakeview Covenant Church near Duluth.


Part of the phenomenon is "clearly the rise and prominence of evangelical Christians at the core of the Republican Party," said Chris Gilbert, an expert on religious conservatives at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

However, he also credits Stephen Carter's 1993 book, "The Culture of Disbelief," with making it acceptable for the intellectual, liberal establishment to talk about faith openly.

Gilbert said Carter, an Ivy League intellectual, said: "People can't keep their religious views in a box or in the shadows as they enter public life. That's not true to their beliefs. When you hear voices not just from one aspect of Christianity talking about why it's important to include faith language, that opens the door."


Kiffmeyer asserts that when church-state separatists keep all references to religion out of the public sphere "that establishes a religion -- atheism. When we don't allow anyone to post the scriptures on the wall or crosses then we're really promoting atheism, a belief."

She defied anyone at a luncheon at the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park this spring to find the phrase "separation of church and state" in the Constitution.

"It's not there," she said, adding, "I don't want to turn the government into the church. 'Government' starts with a G, but it doesn't end with a D."

Pawlenty said that in her nine years of being on the bench "no one has ever asked me in a public setting" about her faith. "I don't find myself having that kind of dialogue or public setting. But if someone asks me, 'Do You have a faith relationship with Jesus Christ?' The answer is 'Yes.' It's impossible to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and not have it impact how you make decisions. Sometimes during a very difficult case I'll go into my office and close the door and just pray. I'll say, 'God, I need your wisdom and judgment on this.' But it's important to say that it's not something that happens in the public eye."


The Rev. Al Gallmon of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis was a member of the Minneapolis School Board for several years. "I've seen politicians talking about their faith," he said, "But I've seen very few living their faith. In the entire (legislative) debate about the budget and how it was going to impact all Minnesotans, no one talked about the moral implications of the deficit we have. I've seen a huge void in what people say and what they do."

Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, a lobbying group representing an array of religious groups in Minnesota, worries that much of the public God-talk is just a way for officials to identify themselves to their followers.

He's not so sure it tells anyone anything about how their faith informs their decisions.

"You can be religiously identified with anything, but that doesn't give you a clear picture of the officials' guiding principles on policies," he said.

Johnson, like Rusche, worries that too many of the conservatives are leaving out an essential element of the Christian faith -- justice.

From his Norwegian Lutheran background, he said he learned.

"You work hard, take care of your family, but you also have a greater good to the wider community. If people are hurting and suffering from misfortune or tragedy, you try to help the situation."

What To Read Next
Get Local