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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2005
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OP-ED

2006 governor's race as a faith-based initiative

By James L. Evans

I was speaking with a friend at a minister's meeting not long ago. He was describing a conflict in his church between two prominent members. He briefly outlined the nature of the problem, and then talked for a bit about how the two people were conducting themselves. Eventually he sighed and said, "I have never seen two people try so hard to out-Jesus one another."

I thought that was an interesting phrase so I asked him what it means to "out-Jesus" someone. He said the two combatants were each trying to portray themselves as being particularly close to God. In the calculus of evangelical faith, where "what would Jesus do" serves as the ultimate trump card, the one who can out-Jesus the other will win the contest.

All of this came to mind recently as next year's gubernatorial race began to take shape. Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore announced he was going to run as a Republican candidate for governor. No one questions where he stands religiously. In fact, that's what got him in trouble — he put his faith on display down at the courthouse in the form of a two-ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments. Judge Moore was eventually forced from office for refusing a federal court order to remove the monument. Clearly, Judge Moore has vast experience in knowing how to out-Jesus an opponent.

Gov. Bob Riley also announced his plan to seek re-election. In the past, Riley has not been as flamboyant with his faith as Moore is with his, but he hasn't tried to hide it either. In fact, in his failed attempt to fix Alabama's flawed tax structure in the early part of his term, he made it clear that his primary motive was to be faithful to Jesus' call to care for the "least of these."

Riley does seem to be ratcheting up his faith visibility now that the race is on. Not long after announcing his re-election bid, the governor appeared before a group of ministers and talked to them about the importance of personal witnessing and evangelism.

So what happens if the governor's race becomes a faith-based initiative with at least two of the candidates actively engaged in trying to out-Jesus one another? What is the role of faith in a political campaign, and in the governance of a state or nation? Does the presence of faith give a person an edge in ability and effectiveness?

I am reminded of the old joke about a plane trip where the pilot becomes disabled. The frantic crew calls out over the intercom for anyone who knows how to fly. In a few moments a minister appears and says, "I don't know how to fly, but I have faith." Soon afterwards another individual appears and says, "I'm an agnostic, but I'm a licensed pilot." So, who do you want flying the plane?

Of course, our choices in the governor's race are not between believers and unbelievers, but between styles of believing. And once that is settled, once we know that everyone in the race prays to the same God, shouldn't the next question we ask be something like, "Who is most fit to govern?"

It will be interesting to see how Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley and former Gov. Don Siegleman, candidates on the Democratic side, respond to all this Jesus talk. These days, as is true with foxholes, there are no atheists in political contests.

Meanwhile, out here in the real world where people depend on the state to do what it is charged to do, it will be important not to allow the race to become a contest of religious piety. It will be tempting for ordinary people of faith to get caught up in back and forth effort of the candidates to out-Jesus one another. That's because folks take their faith seriously. What we can all strive to do in this race, however, is look beyond the faith of the candidates and find the ability and desire to govern effectively — in other words, someone who can actually fly the plane. Faith without good works, as the New Testament writer said, is dead.

Since Jesus may turn out to be one of the recurring themes in this race, it might be helpful to remember something he said. Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord," really means it.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be reached at faithmatters@mindspring.com

Written for The Birmingham News and reprinted with permission.

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