Faith and Philosophy Take Center Stage in Iowa

Lucas Morel

December 1, 1999

In case you missed it, philosophers were invited on stage at the Republican Debate in Iowa, and the aftershocks still rumble through the political landscape.

No, I’m not referring to the six candidates vying for the GOP nomination for president, though their comments during the 90-minute debate offered much for voters to ponder. I am referring to their response to a simple question: “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?”

Not a bad question. True, they are all conservatives and could be expected to position Lincoln and Reagan as the philosophical bookends for their presidential gamebooks. Still, their answers gave insight into their character and politics. One answer in particular created a buzz for its implications for the rest of the campaign. Let’s review.

Steve Forbes began by knocking President Clinton and today’s candidate-to-beat George W. Bush: “Well, I won’t say I’m reading a book by a philosopher and I’m not reading a book on Dean Acheson.” While Iowans needed little reminding of Bush’s reading habits, Forbes’s more veiled reference was to then-candidate Bill Clinton’s admiration for The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius back in 1992.

While it’s doubtful Clinton wore a “What Would Marcus Do?” bracelet during his presidency, Forbes invoked enlightenment philosopher John Locke as his oracle. With Thomas Jefferson (whom Forbes also mentioned) channeling Locke while writing the Declaration of Independence, Forbes couldn’t get more conservative than that.

After Forbes stole this page from Alan Keyes’s play book, Keyes appealed to not one but all of “the founders of this country.”
He then connected thought to action by extolling their creation of a constitution that had “preserved our liberty now for over 200 years.”
This original Constitution omitted an income tax, which suits Keyes better than a system that makes citizens rely on “nice politicians like Mr. Bush or bad politicians like Bill Clinton to decide how much of their own money they should keep.” (Bush welcomed the compliment.) Connecting his own thought to action, Keyes would abolish today’s confiscatory income tax and reinstate the Founder’s preference for an excise or sales tax.

Then all eyes turned to Bush, who answered: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Prompted to elaborate on how Jesus changed his heart, Bush decided it wasn’t that kind of tent meeting: “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain.” After repeating his original statement, he chose not to explain how the wisdom of Christ shapes his life or politics.

A missed opportunity, tactical retreat, or outright blunder? Pundits across the political spectrum, from Maureen O’Dowd to Bill Kristol, criticized Bush for inviting Jesus to the debate. This Christmas, presidential debates should offer no room at the inn for discussing the impact of personal faith on public life.

But Bush’s reference to Jesus Christ was no breach of political propriety, just a bungled attempt to acknowledge the impact of a world-historical figure on his mind and character. If Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, it would be more surprising if faith did not influence one’s personal and public life. The real question is, in what ways can religion legitimately inform one’s public actions, especially within a pluralistic society?

After Bush’s stumble into the thicket of religion and politics, only Senator John McCain refused to mention his faith. Senator Orrin Hatch and Gary Bauer both testified to their Christianity, but Hatch quickly added Lincoln and Reagan for good measure. No stretch there. (Bauer saved Lincoln and Reagan for his closing remarks.) McCain paid deference to the American Founders, but chose Theodore Roosevelt as his “role model and hero.” A maverick (read: not always conservative) Republican as McCain’s standard-bearer? What a surprise! At least TR is a credible symbol of the kind of domestic and international leadership McCain wants to exercise as president.

Bauer quoted a Gospel passage about helping the needy as both a Christ-affirming act and unifying principle for America’s diverse community, which includes the unborn child.
He then cited Jesus as the only person “who through his life, his death, and his resurrection has changed the world for millions, billions, countless people.” Closing
with, “If America is in trouble in the next century, it will be because we forgot what he [Jesus] taught us,” Bauer rushed in where Bush feared to tread-and didn’t sound half bad.

Which is why the press picked on Bush. They saw his brief, religious testimony as yet another example of his refusal to expound on a prepared script. Here they are onto something. Republicans should be concerned about Bush’s penchant for delivering the “right” conservative answers without explaining why they are right. Americans deserve an explanation if he’s to become the next president.

This we know for sure: Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was no fan of Jesus Christ.

Lucas Morel teaches politics at Washington and Lee University and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.