Missouri Senate Race: Religion Is Central Though Unspoken Issue
By Clayton Bellamy, Special to Stateline
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 approaches to their faiths. Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Southern Baptist deacon, seeks to unseat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, a member of the Assembly of God church and a former touringgospel singer.
Religion overtly popped up in the campaign only recently and both candidates have avoided talking directly about it. Under the surface, however, religion has beenrising in importance for years.
Recently an Ashcroft radio ad hit the airwavescriticizing 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 thepontiff's views on partial-birth abortion. When the pope toured Missouri in January 1999, he asked Carnahan to sparemurderer Darrel Mease. The Democrat obliged, kicking off a renewed national debate on capital punishment, and turning up the heat on the issue.
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. 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 don't try to."
Though their influence is not overt, the governor said his beliefs affect his policies. "It clearly creates your sense of right and wrong, your commitment to making thevery best judgments you can. Your faith is your anchor. That's what guides you to makegood decisions," he said.
The son of an Assemblies of God preacher, Ashcroft, his opponent, displays his religion more openly. His critics say he wears it on his sleeve. The senator starts each morning with a devotional observance. He flirtedwith 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 andsongwriting."Ashcroft was really energized by the experience of singing at churches. It was a natural thing for him," Kincheloe said. "That left the strongest impressionon me of how important his religion is to him.
"John never really attributed any of his policies to his faith, but like with any policy maker, a lot of the issues they pursue bear on morality or vice versa."
Kincheloe disputes 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," he said. "There's only one persona,unlike other politicians who are different in public than in private."
No other issue draws as clear a contrast between Carnahan and Ashcroft as 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 political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "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 ofcandidates who oppose abortion on car windshields all over the state, said Hardy, who twice ran for Congress as a Republican. 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 andCarnahan and Planned Parenthood on the other. Abortion-rights advocates were among the biggest contributors to Carnahan'soriginal campaign for governor in 1992.
Gore then chose Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, 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.
Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, said history doesn't deal kindly with politicians like Lieberman who carry religion with them on the stump.
"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 more generalized professions of faith, like saying "God Bless America" after a speech. Those statements, he said, show the candidate has faithwithout 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.
Both Carnahan's and Ashcroft's constituencies have crystallized, Hardy, the political scientist said. 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," Hardy said. That's why Ashcroft's ads feature the slogan "Missouri Values," he added."He obviously has focus groups telling him this is better than overt religiousthemes."
Roy Temple, Executive Director of the Missouri Democratic Party, has worked with or around Carnahan for ten years. He said Carnahan's silent approach to religion 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."
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," hesaid."But if you pull out the top 20-30 tenets of the Old Testament, those would make a goodguide for policy."
When 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 a missionary and even a 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 a business executive, said Ashcroft often played wiffle ball with his staff and once tore his hamstring trying to water ski on a canoe paddle.
Former policy director Kincheloe rebuts the critique that Ashcroft tries to impose his religion on others."Criticism of his religiousness is based on an allegation of whether itmakes him judgmental, but that's not my experience," Kincheloe said. The senator doesn't drink a drop, but Kincheloe does. "I never felt uncomfortabledrinking around John or felt I was being judged."