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Religion in Politics

Representatives from local Jewish, Catholic and Muslim communities will hold a public discussion next weekend.

Having noticed that religious issues seem to be playing a particularly important and influential role in the presidential election this year, three local faith leaders are planning a public discussion in Reston to examine how religion informs politics for public officials and for individual voters.

Representatives from the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faith communities will host the interfaith trialogue on "God in the Voting Booth" this Sunday at St. Thomas a Becket Catholic Church.

"Religion just seems to be brought into this campaign more so than in past campaigns," said Nancy Dickson, a member of the church and organizer of the upcoming discussion. "We want to explore what role religion and religious issues should play in voting decisions."

Religion informs voter positions on a range of issues that have been raised during this year's campaign, including stem-cell research, abortion, same-sex marriage, support for Israel, and the inclusion of "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Religious beliefs do not always conform with political beliefs, and religious institutions and political parties can leave voters unsure of where their policy loyalties should reside, Dickson said.

"We thought it was important to discuss all the ways religion is being brought into politics this year and to ask ourselves questions about it," she said. "The trialogue should give us all something to think about."

THIS SUNDAY'S discussion is intended to help voters navigate the often contradictory and confusing decisions that lie at the intersection of politics and religion, said Father Tom Ferguson of St. Thomas a Becket Catholic Church, who will represent his church at the trialogue.

"I'd like to address what the Church has to say about how people need to integrate their beliefs into their political beliefs," he said. "Both voters and public officials are influenced by their political beliefs."

President George W. Bush has said that he feels called by God to lead the United States and has spoken frequently about his Evangelical Christianity. Sen. John Kerry, on the other hand, has started speaking more in recent weeks about his Roman Catholicism, especially how he reconciles his faith with his positions on stem-cell research and a woman's right to choose.

Because political party platforms rarely match religious beliefs exactly, Ferguson said it is incumbent upon the voter to look within to find answers.

"It's not always perfectly clear," he said. "It requires prudential judgment on the part of a voter. It's not a question of a person's goodness or a person's faith. It's how different people's principles can, in good faith, lead to different conclusions."

Even theologians within a particular religion denomination disagree on these issues, Ferguson said. Last spring, a handful of conservative Catholic bishops said Kerry should be denied holy communion because of his stance on abortion. Other Catholic leaders, however, said there can be a justifiable separation between a politician's private faith and public politics.

"There's part of me that believes religion must be important to people because religious issues have taken such a prominent place in this campaign," Ferguson said.

THE MAJOR ISSUES surrounding the Nov. 2 election are leaving many Muslim voter conflicted, said Robert Marro, who will represent the All Dulles Area Muslim Society at the trialogue.

Muslims traditionally support more conservative candidates, believing that the more right-leaning values of Islam should be reflected in all aspects of like, including politics. However, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Muslims have felt targeted and mistreated for the actions of a few violent extremists.

"It's almost an irony that there seems to be a divide," Marro said. "In one sense, Muslims are philosophically in lockstep with conservatives. But then, Muslims with a certain name or from a certain country of origin are being singled out and mistreated."

Mostly because of those issues and because a growing number of Muslims have registered to vote, Marro said, this election is seen as more important to Muslims than ever before.

"Particularly with this election, for the Muslim community, it has taken on a great importance," he said. "With everything that has happened over the last couple years, many Muslims feel a direct connection to the election."

Marro said people attending the trialogue should expect to hear an honest discussion between different faiths on religion, politics and how they sometimes contradict and sometimes complement the other.

Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, who will represent the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation at the trialogue, did not return telephone calls by press deadline.