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Religion to play major role in Senate race

September 01, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The candidates in Missouri's Senate race haven't said much about it, but religion has assumed a major role in a contest between two devout men with dramatically different approachs to their faiths.

Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Southern Baptist deacon, seeks to unseat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, a member of the Assemblies of God church and a former touring gospel singer.

Religion overtly popped up in the campaign only recently and both candidates have avoided talking directly about the topic. Under the surface, however, religion has been rising in importance for years.

Just more than a week ago, an Ashcroft radio ad hit the airwaves criticizing Carnahan for commuting a convicted killer's death sentence at Pope John Paul's request. The ad charged that while saving a killer's life, Carnahan ignored the pontiff's views on partial-birth abortion.

When the pope toured Missouri in January 1999, he asked Carnahan to forego murderer Darrel Mease's execution. The Democrat Carnahan obliged, kicking off a national debate on capital punishment, and turning up the heat on the religion kettle in Missouri.

Later that year, Carnahan vetoed a bill banning a late-term abortion procedure, but the legislature overwhelmingly overrode it, in part because Catholic Democrats supported the measure.

TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHS

Carnahan said in an interview he prefers to keep his beliefs to himself.

"I have always been very private about my religion, but also very sincere," Carnahan said. "It's very much a part of my life. I think you can't take your faith, your religion out of your life. I dont try to."

Though their influence is not overt, the governor said his beliefs do affect his policies.

"It clearly creates your sense of right and wrong, your commitment to making the very best judgments you can. Your faith is your anchor. That's what guides you to make good decisions," he said.

The son of an Assemblies of God preacher, Ashcroft displays his religion more openly. His critics say he wears it on his sleeve.

The senator starts each morning with a devotional observance. He flirted with a presidential run aimed at the religious right, but abandoned it when Carnahan entered the Senate race.

Duncan Kincheloe served as policy director for all eight years of Ashcroft's governorship, years when Ashcroft was doing a lot of gospel singing and songwriting.

"Ashcroft was really energized by the experience of singing at churches. It was a natural thing for him," Kincheloe said. "That left the strongest impression on me of how important his religion is to him.

"John never really attributed policies to his faith, but like with any policy maker, a lot of the issues they pursue bear on morality or vice versa."

Kincheloe diputes the criticism that the senator wears his religion on his sleeve -- it's just that with Ashcroft what you see is what you get.

"John is the same publicly or privately. There's only one persona, unlike other politicians who are different in public than in private."

BIG ISSUE IS ALWAYS ABORTION

No other issue draws as clear a contrast between Carnahan and Ashcroft than abortion. Ashcroft staunchly opposes the practice and Carnahan fights for abortion rights.

"The big issue always in Missouri is going to be abortion," said Rick Hardy, a University of Missouri-Columbia Political Science professor who twice ran for Congress as a Republican. "They aren't the same (religion and abortion), but they overlap. Catholics, evangelists always make an issue out of abortion."

In the days before the election, anti-abortion groups place lists of pro-life candidates on car windshields all across the state, he said. This can have a huge impact at the ballot box.

When Carnahan vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban last year, he ran newspaper ads to justify his position.

That suggested to Hardy that Carnahan was on the defensive. And the override (only the third this century), he argued, indicates a Democratic party divided on the issue.

The veto and subsequent override, while significant, were just the latest chapter in Missouri's abortion battle.

Carnahan and his administration have long been in the eye of a storm over public funding of abortions. A legislative and court fight has raged for years pitting anti-abortionists and the Missouri Catholic Conference on one side and Carnahan and Planned Parenthood on the other.

Abortion-rights advocates were among the biggest contributors to Carnahan's original campaign for governor in 1992.

WHAT WOULD JESUS DO

Religion's importance in the Missouri Senate contest is mirrored in the presidential race.

Republican candidate George W. Bush started the religious bandwagon last spring when he said his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ. Not to be outdone, Democrat Al Gore said that when faced with indecision his motto is "what would Jesus do."

Gore then chose Orthodox Jew Sen. Joe Lieberman to be his running mate. Since being tapped, Lieberman's speeches have been laden with biblical references.

Some have praised Lieberman's overt religiosity, while others, including the Anti-Defamation League--a Jewish group formed to fight anti-semitism--have been critical.

The religious tones of the presidential campaign were brought to Missouri recently by the GOP VP nominee, Dick Cheney, in his appearance at the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christen Athletes.

GENERALIZED PROFESSIONS OF FAITH

Ken Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University, said history doesn't bode well for politicians like Lieberman who stump religious.

"Most Americans are fond of candidates that don't push a strong religious platform," Warren said. "Those that do generally don't fare well in the general election."

He said Americans favor generalized professions of faith, like saying "God Bless America" after a speech. Those statements show that the candidate has faith, while not alienating anyone.

Ashcroft's campaign reflects that approach. The senator has downplayed his religion in favor of a secular platform of protecting social security and providing seniors with affordable prescription drugs.

Hardy said Carnahan and Ashcroft have both crystallized their constituents. What's left is a small chunk of voters in the middle, only 10 percent according to a July poll.

"If the fight is over the people in the middle, you play down those issues that tend to divide and find issues that unite," he said.

That's why Ashcroft's ads feature the slogan "Missouri Values." "He obviously has focus groups telling him this is better than overt religious themes," he said.

HE JUST LIVES IT

Roy Temple, Executive Director of the the Missouri Democratic Party, has worked with or around Carnahan for ten years. He said Carnahan's laconic religious approach isn't timid.

"It's a central part of who he is, but I wouldn't say it's something he puts on a big display about," he said. "He just lives it."

When Temple was working on Carnahan's son's congressional campaign in 1990, he had an emergency appendectomy. He said Carnahan and his wife were the first people to visit him in the hospital.

Temple served as chief, or deputy chief, of the governor's staff for three years. He said Carnahan's faith was evident in the policies he pursued.

"Did he go over church doctrines before making a policy decision? No," he said. "But if you pull out the top 20-30 tenants of the Old Testament, those would make a good guide for policy."

ASHCROFT'S FUN-LOVING SIDE

When John Ashcroft was governor, social receptions at the governor's mansion were alcohol free, and he often entertained his guests by singing gospel numbers. To some voters, Ashcroft comes off as evangelical and even prude.

But Richard McClure, Ashcroft's former gubernatorial chief of staff, said the senator is not as stiff as he seems. People just don't get to see his fun-loving side.

McClure, now an executive at Unigroup, the parent company of United Van Lines, said Ashcroft often played Wiffle Ball with his staff on the mansion lawn, and once tore his hamstring trying to water ski on a canoe paddle.

Former policy director Kincheloe refutes the critique that Ashcroft tries to impose his religious beliefs on others.

"Criticism of his religousness is based on an allegation of whether it makes him judgmental, but that's not my experience," Kincheloe said.

The senator doesn't drink a drop, but Kincheloe does. "I never felt uncomfortable drinking around John or felt I was being judged."