Will religion be an issue in Virginia elections this fall? Not if the candidates have anything to say about it. 

Localizing Lieberman

Warren Stewart, the Democrat running for Congress against Republican Del. Eric Cantor, says religion - and specifically Cantor's Judaism - should play no part in the 7th District House campaign.

Stewart feels so strongly about that, he says, he won't disclose his own religious affiliation.

"I want to make sure I unify folks, not divide them," the former Goochland County school superintendent says. "I want people to vote for me because they are tolerant."

Stewart declines to speak publicly about the specifics of his faith, such as any affiliation with a particular denomination or church. "I'm proud of my Judeo-Christian heritage, no doubt about it. I have a great respect for all faiths," he says. "I take multiple opportunities during the day to practice my faith. I have specific readings that I read. I also respect others who do not have a Judeo-Christian heritage."

Stewart thinks issues of religion, spirituality, faith and values are ascendant in the post-Clinton era, most notably with the elevation of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an Orthodox Jew with a reputation as a moralist. "I do think there's been a convergence on that, but I think that the issue of faith remains a personal thing," Stewart says. Religion shouldn't be an issue in the 7th District race and Stewart doesn't want people to vote for him out of bigotry against Cantor's Jewish faith, he says.

Such voting made Cantor's margin of victory over state Sen. Stephen Martin of Chesterfield for the Republican nomination surprisingly small, analysts say. While the state delegate from Henrico County had key party endorsements, "Cantor's religion hurt him," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Governmental Studies, told Style in June. "It was the unspoken issue people whispered about. That was a factor."

Martin "had a base among Christian social conservatives," says Bob Holsworth, director of the VCU Center for Public Policy. Now, with the party's nomination settled, Cantor's faith will be a non-issue and the largely Republican district will vote along party rather than religious lines. "Cantor wins," Holsworth says. "He has no serious competition."

Sabato agrees. "It's easy to predict that Cantor will win that race by a massive majority," he says. "Religion is not as important as some people think it is."

Certainly that's what Cantor hopes. His "nightmare scenario is somebody who wouldn't vote for a candidate based on his faith."

"Obviously, my faith is very important to me," Cantor says. "That sort of upbringing and strong family values helps provide me with a moral compass." He attends Orthodox and Conservative Jewish services - "I wouldn't say every Saturday" - and is "not strictly observant of the Sabbath," but "I would probably be considered more observant than most Jewish people."

Like Stewart, Cantor thinks religion should not be a factor in politics. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by Gore's selection of Lieberman.

"I think that this country needs a dose of morality and decency back again," Cantor says. "Obviously, I have political differences with Joe Lieberman. But if he's qualified for the job, then the issues should be the debate."

Others say that also applies to the U.S. Senate race here between incumbent Democrat Chuck Robb and former Gov. George Allen, a Republican. "I think the Senate race here is going to be one of the great issues-oriented races in the country," Holsworth says. The race will turn "not on their personal values as much as their political values."

Sabato says that while Allen has made hay by tying Robb to "Clinton values," going a step further to attack the senator as irreligious could be suicidal. "There's a great danger … there could be a backlash" in using religion politically, Sabato says.

Even in Virginia, the home of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, there remains a bright line between church and state in campaign rhetoric. "I don't think it has anything to do with any waning of the Christian Coalition or the Moral Majority or anything like that," says Ed Matricardi, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. Instead, he says, rather than religious rhetoric, voters want visible values: "Character, trustworthiness, credibility - that's what people are looking for. People they can have faith in."

This is "an evolving and transforming state. The Virginia of today is very different than the Virginia of, say, just after World War II," Matricardi says, when the rise of larger and more diverse urban and suburban areas, particularly in Northern Virginia, diluted the dominance of some Christian denominations.

That's fine with Allen, a Baptist, who traces the state's tradition of keeping religion out of politics to Thomas Jefferson. "I am a strong adherent to the spirit and letter of Virginia's statute of religious freedom, in which a person's rights and opportunities are not enhanced or diminished because of his or her religious beliefs," Allen says in a statement.

"There's something unseemly of the media's habit of always referring to Sen. Lieberman by his religion. He's an American. He's a human being. I look forward to serving with him in the United States Senate next year," Allen's statement concludes. (Robb's camp, in California last week for the Democratic National Convention, did not provide a statement of the Episcopalian senator's views by press time, though Steven Vaughan, communications coordinator for the Democratic Party of Virginia, says religion is not and should not be an issue.)

Democratic congressional candidate Stewart, who served with the Council for America's First Freedom, the Richmond-based group that celebrates Jefferson's statute, agrees with Allen: "I think the greatness of America is in that statute of religious freedom." It is a view that was reinforced by his experience with religious intolerance abroad, he says.

Stewart, who attended a Quaker college, has visited India, Japan, Korea and Malaysia, where he has learned about the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths firsthand, he says. "What I find is … that there are so many common bonds [and] so much common ground."

But there's always room for intolerance. In the 1970s, Stewart says, he worked for the U.S. government abroad, teaching Amerasian children in Korea, and "worked a lot with missionary groups of all different denominations, from various countries."

In Malaysia, Stewart says, he met a government official who told him, "'We're going to turn this into a Muslim country.'"

"And in three years, they

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