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GUSTAV NIEBUHR

The big tent of religion

THE LATE Republican political consultant Lee Atwater once hopefully described the GOP as "a big tent," spacious enough for differing opinions, even on contentious social issues. But these days, when politics seems especially bitter and both major parties narrowly defined, the big tent label might well be applied elsewhere -- to religious denominations.

That may seem counter-intuitive. After all, don't churches emphasize doctrine and tradition? Yes, of course, they do. But beyond the theological essentials -- Jesus' identity as God's Son, the status of baptism and communion as sacraments, the Bible as God's word -- there is an awful lot of room in the pews for ideological diversity.

And Americans make ample use of that space. Look at the top of the Republican and Democratic tickets: President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney belong to the same big church as Senator John Edwards, the Democrats' vice presidential candidate. All are United Methodists. Even as they differ sharply on tax policy, the environment, and how to proceed in Iraq, we may assume they assent to the Methodist understanding that faith rests on a "quadrilateral" of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

The nation's 8 million-plus Methodists also include Senator Hillary Clinton, along with her husband's former rival for the presidency, Bob Dole. Sure, these big names are divided by party lines, but that doesn't mean they can't worship together. (For a time in the 1990s, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Dole did attend the same church in Washington, D.C.)

Bipartisanship is hardly unique to Methodists. Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, among others, have members on both sides of the aisle in Congress and the state legislatures. So, too, do Southern Baptists, who not long ago produced a remarkable constellation of ideological diversity at the heights of power. In the late 1990s, the roster of Southern Baptists in top elective positions included President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

To be sure, Roman Catholics are as ideologically diverse as their Protestant counterparts. How else to describe a political spectrum that includes John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum? On the other hand, the suggestion this year by some bishops that the Eucharist be denied to Catholic politicians who support a legal right to abortion complicates this picture beyond anything experienced by Protestants.

The range of opinion within these churches indicates they are far more diverse and interesting than they are often portrayed. For example, the Methodists are often tagged as "liberal" -- that is, the denomination makes no effort to enforce a literal, or fundamentalist, interpretation of Scripture.

None of this means ideological diversity is easy for people living under the same religious roof. For years, major Protestant denominations have expended great time and energy struggling over what recognition to afford gay people in their pews. Last year, Episcopal Church leaders allowed the consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire. In May, by contrast, the Methodists voted to reaffirm a ban on gay ordination.

As a result, some in those denominations have demanded formal division -- schism -- over these issues. But in American religious life, breaking up is hard to do. Even amid controversy, the vast majority of members of these churches have stayed put. The Methodists actually faced this issue at their conference in May, affirming their belief in remaining together by a majority of better than 19-1.

In his recent study of mainline Protestants, the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that many church members took pride in the diversity within their ranks, even if they wished for less controversy. "The church was one place where they could talk deeply about their differences and still be part of the same community," he said.

It's enough to put one in mind of a great 19th century hymn, still widely popular: "In Christ there is no East or West, in Him no North or South . . ." Had its author been writing today, he might well want to add, "In Him no red states or blue."

Gustav Niebuhr is associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University. 

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