DETROIT — Seeking to solidify Democratic presidential
nominee John Kerry’s small lead in the state, his running
mate John Edwards mined the moral and religious rhetoric —
which President Bush has used to great effect — during his
speech to an all-black congregation in Detroit yesterday.

Edwards has also visited black churches in Florida and North
Carolina, courting churchgoers with his own strong faith.

At times during his speech, the North Carolina senator’s
morally charged language evoked Bush’s often dualistic
worldview, in which the president defines issues in black-and-white
terms.

“It’s important to speak out against the immoral and
unjust forces,” Edwards said. He later said his opponents on
the Republican ticket are “trying to exploit our
nation’s greatest tragedy (Sept. 11) for personal gain
… It’s immoral and it’s wrong.”

In a June Time magazine poll, a majority of respondents said
Bush is a man of strong religious convictions while a smaller
number agreed when that statement was applied to Kerry. Edwards
tried to chip away at the monopoly Bush seemingly has over faith
with his speech at the New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in
Christ.

“The Bible is such an important part of my life and
Senator Kerry’s life,” he said.

But playing the religion card may not have as much strategic
importance for Kerry and Edwards as it does for Bush. The same Time
poll revealed that only 17 percent of Kerry supporters said it is
“very important” that a presidential candidate is
religious, compared with 42 percent of Bush supporters. Respondents
who supported Bush also said they attended religious services far
more often than Kerry supporters.

Still, Edwards’s faith may appeal to the 40 percent of
Kerry backers in the poll that agreed “religious values
should serve as a guide to what political leaders do in
office.”

In an interview with the Interfaith Alliance last year, Edwards
said he would not let his religious beliefs influence national
policy, especially when his beliefs conflict with those of other
faiths.

In the same interview, Edwards said he “moved away
somewhat” from his faith in college — he was raised as
a Southern Baptist — and rediscovered religion after the
death of his son in 1996. Edwards now belongs to the United
Methodist Church, to which Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney
also belong. Since then, Edwards has co-chaired both the Senate and
National Prayer Breakfasts, where people of different faiths and
political stripes unite in prayer.

Yesterday Edwards repeated an anecdote about President Lincoln
that he used when he introduced Bush at the 2002 National Prayer
Breakfast. Edwards related how a Congressman asked Lincoln during
the Civil War to pray God is on the side of the Union. Lincoln
declined, saying, “Let us pray we’re on God’s
side.”

Kerry borrowed the quote, which Edwards had also used to rebut
the Massachusetts senator during a primary season debate, for his
acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

At the Prayer Breakfast, the quote had a conciliatory and
nonpartisan tone, but yesterday it served to augment the Kerry
campaign’s moral purpose.

Detroit resident Iris Smith said religious language has a place
in political discourse.

“It’s good, but let it be part of your
lifestyle,” she said.

LSA junior John Gehart, a Campus Crusade for Christ member,
questioned the influence of religion on voting patterns. He said a
candidate’s strong religious faith alone cannot overcome a
voter’s opposition to that candidate.

But he said religion is an issue presidential candidates cannot
avoid, even if their faith is very personal for them, and despite
their attempts to avoid exploitation of the issue.

“The reason the issue comes up is people are curious how
they make decisions. I don’t think it’s possible to
hide when you’re in the public eye,” he said.

Neither Smith nor Gehart said the invoking of Christian concepts
poses a problem for religious minorities. Gehart said Americans
only object to Christian candidates who share their faith with the
public, and not to candidates of other faiths such as Sen. Joseph
Lieberman , a Democrat from Connecticut who ran in the presidential
primaries earlier this year, who openly declares his faith in
Judaisim.

“I’d expect that if I were in a Muslim country,
they’d acknowledge that their law comes from Islam,” he
added.

Smith and Gehart both invoked the intent of the nation’s
founding fathers to support their contention that religion has a
role to play in politics. They said America’s foundation was
religious.

“These are deeply religious men who formed the
country,” Gehart said. “I can’t imagine
they’d create a country where God has no place.”

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