Bill Bradley Talks Values Without Mentioning Jesus

Especially now that the pollsters and pundits are turning on him, it’s plain that Bill Bradley is running a soulful campaign. He offers himself as a missionary who’s restlessly crisscrossed the country for 40 years learning about himself and others. He has the “radical” idea that sharing his beliefs with people will bring them together and remake the country in a more caring and humble form.

But as to his particular religious practice, Bill Bradley has nothing to say, even as several journalists have pressed him on the subject and the two parties’ front-runners announce that they’re runnin’ with Jesus. As a secularized Jew, I find Mr. Bradley’s position brave and intriguing. For I have the impression that he’s no longer a Christian.

Certainly, Bill Bradley was a Christian once. He calls Presbyterianism “the religious faith of my youth.” And he spent years in his early 20’s proselytizing others as a fundamentalist athlete.

But what is he now? Bill Bradley won’t say. He won’t say where he worships, or if he worships. And when The Washington Post published a searching series on Mr. Bradley’s life last month, he turned aside religious questions. “Everything I’m going to say about it, I’ve said in writing,” he said four times, with slight variations, during the Post reporters’ interviews.

Fair enough. I read Bill Bradley’s last book, the splendid memoir, Time Present, Time Past . (The dirty secret is that he’s a better writer than a politician.) It shows someone who is, to use the New Age cliché, highly evolved, a seasoned worldly man who in his mid-50’s has come out the chastened end of the “money/pleasure syndrome” with a strong sense of faith. Mr. Bradley’s unrelenting tone–you hear it in his speeches, too–is one of humility and sincerity, as when he praises his agent in his acknowledgments for bringing him “deals too generous for me to accept.”

Mr. Bradley’s spirituality seems to have taken many steps away from the Christian faith of his youth. Jesus Christ only shows up as someone with whom, 30 years ago, Bill Bradley had “convinced” himself that he had had a “‘personal experience.'” (His quotation marks, his dripping irony.) He is contemptuous of the notion of a “distant God,” reverent toward Native American pantheist belief, and now and then trails along in the shadow of Zen master (and coach) Phil Jackson.

While he makes it plain that he believes in some divinity far larger than us, Mr. Bradley’s book is so cleansed of reference to church as playing any positive role as to suggest that Bill Bradley is suspicious of organized religion. For instance, when in his preface Mr. Bradley describes the values crisis in this gluttonous materialistic society, he laments the loss of a great many institutions: the two-parent family, the P.T.A., the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and on to employer loyalty, politeness and so forth. But there is simply no reference in this long (and conservative) list to the breakdown of organized religion. Mr. Bradley seems to regard that as a neutral trend. Indeed, the “arrogance” of majority religion seems to resonate for him with the arrogance of majority culture. He refers to whites as Caucasians. He describes crustless white-bread sandwiches as “ethnic food.”

His spiritual vocabulary is modern. He speaks of a struggle, a journey, a “passage,” of “variant religious experiences full of ecstasy.” There’s reverence for Sioux rituals and the polyglot spirituality of the Pequod. And an air (one I and many other privileged people share) of having abandoned the rituals of youth as too narrow. “Powerful psychological forces” made the young Bill Bradley too respectful of authority, he notes ruefully. His religious practice would seem to be New Age or syncretist or multicultural.

“If you choose faith, then you move beyond ritual to a search for your own individual path,” he says.

What all this says to me is that he is no longer a Christian–in the same sense that religiously speaking, it would be dishonest for me to say that I’m Jewish. Not that he’s anti-Christian. But that he’s moved past a belief in the divinity of Jesus. (This is, by the way, quite different from the other challenger, John McCain, whose book Faith of My Fathers isn’t especially spiritual but when it is invokes a distant patriarchal god. Bill Bradley’s God has died and gone not to heaven but to earth. He seems to exist in all of us.)

I could be wrong. “He hasn’t said that [he's left Christianity] to me,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, who has had discussions with the candidate. Dale Russakoff, one of two Washington Post reporters who spent months researching Mr. Bradley’s life, reminds me of his commitment to privacy. “Based on what I learned reporting, I think if he were or were not Christian, you wouldn’t know it today,” she said. “Because he was exposed to a macabre amount of attention when he was young and is now committed to keeping certain things private. Also because he seems to feel regret about using what he calls his ‘well-knownness’ to save souls in his youth.” The soul, Ms. Russakoff said, is in Mr. Bradley’s view a private terrain.

But let’s assume I’m right, he’s not a Christian. Is it anyone’s business? Does it have political consequences?

“His position is perfectly acceptable. Religion is a personal matter,” Ed Koch said. Mr. Lerner, of Tikkun magazine, said, “He’s doing a service to us all by drawing the line. I think it’s not a private matter whether he has a spiritual concern about the world that shapes his view of public policy. Love and caring and an ethical consciousness should supplement the focus on money and power. But the specific spiritual community from which those values derive and what your connection to that community is should be a private matter.”

Paul Taylor of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, who as a reporter asked Gary Hart the adultery question 12 years ago, agrees: “The two areas of one’s personal life in which there’s a public interest are health and wealth. I don’t think there’s a pretext for a reporter to ask the question, Are you a Christian? Of course when a candidate uses deeply personal experiences to talk about the reason he has certain views, he invites some scrutiny. But I couldn’t see asking Bradley about this in a press conference- type setting.”

Religious matters may play a role in the race, even on the Democratic side. George Bush has declared, shamelessly and stupidly, that his idea of a great political leader is Jesus Christ. With the same vacancy of spirit, Al Gore has announced that he is born-again. They seem to be girding up for a holy war.

Religion may already be a factor in the race, said Michael Barone, the author of The Almanac of American Politics . “Not explicitly,” he said. But the difference between Al Gore and Bill Bradley’s descriptions of their commitment could help Mr. Bradley in the early going, in Northern states and California, then hurt him on March 14, when the South begins to vote.

“I believe I’ve seen Gore ask, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ W.W.J.D. That language works for him,” Mr. Barone said. Indeed, Vice President Gore’s Jesusing may help explain why polls show him with a 2-to-1 advantage over Mr. Bradley among black voters.

Meantime, Bill Bradley’s subtle and enlightened views of commitment could help him with secularized voters like me in California and New York. “These people dislike the politicians making a big show of their religion,” Mr. Barone says. “It’s a large vote in the Democratic primary and those people, without really knowing what Bradley’s opinions are, probably find his nonwillingness to come forward encouraging.”

Mr. Bradley’s secularism is a throwback to other great statesmen who did not wear observance on their sleeve. Mr. Barone cites Thomas Jefferson and Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson said he was a Unitarian, which was the 1950’s equivalent of saying you are on your own individual spiritual path.

Stevenson’s lack of belief didn’t disqualify him in the 50’s, Mr. Barone said, and a Jew could become President today. “Jewish people in politics say I’m wrong, but I think they’re paranoid and wrong.” All the same, if Mr. Bradley were not a Christian, and people knew it, it could cost him a “few points,” Mr. Barone said. And candidates rarely do things that would cost them a few points.

I think this explains Bill Bradley’s opacity. He is too genuine a person to disguise his faith, but he stays quiet about the flavor of his practice because it seems like a liability. “I want to come to a time in history where we can explore our religious differences and have that be safe,” Mr. Lerner said. “But it doesn’t feel safe to most people yet today. Maybe when we’ve had 100 years of no one being persecuted for religious belief.”

Both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush, he added, “have crossed the line.” They’ve “been pandering to their perception of the demands of their right wing. And that’s very dangerous. If belief in Jesus ought to be counted on one’s behalf in running for public office, then any Jew is going to be disadvantaged as well as someone from any other religious tradition or one who doesn’t identify with a religious tradition.”

I wish I could say that America is better than that, and that Bill Bradley will be able to prove it. Unfortunately, he now seems poised to demonstrate a different lesson, the limits of thoughtfulness in politics.