By Greg Bluestein
Gov. Nathan Deal solemnly cradled the cold stones of the Western Wall. He reverently wandered the passages of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And he was overcome with emotion during a rooftop view of Jerusalem's Old City.
The governor rarely talks at length about his faith and the role it plays in his political decisions. He seldom quotes from Bible passages in political speeches. But his trade mission to Israel this week forced him to confront the delicate balance dividing church and state.
It's far from an esoteric question. The governor and his challenger, Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, both say their faith is an important touchstone in their lives, a moral compass in deciding some of the most perplexing decisions. And for Deal, religion is not something he throws around lightly.
"I try to be a follower. Our understanding of what Jesus taught was that you're going to hide these truths in your heart," Deal said. "It's not so much what you say, it's what you do. And it's the way we try to live."
"Did you clothe the poor?'
The governor's faith has always been a quiet one, said Dr. Bill Coates, who has been Deal's pastor for 16 years at Gainesville's First Baptist Church. Coates said it has manifested itself in one of his signature legislative pushes, an attempt to overhaul the criminal justice system by keeping more nonviolent offenders out of jail.
"I have seen up close Nathan's genuine concern for nonviolent prisoners as their time comes for parole and release back into our lives," he said. "And I feel certain that this is as much a guiding factor in his current efforts in prison reform as any other factors that may be involved."
Indeed, that years-long effort is one of the few areas where he overtly mentions a religious role. He created an Interfaith Council in April to advise him on how to ease a convicted offender's re-entry into the community, and this month his office created a network called Healing Communities of Georgia to work with religious congregations to reduce recidivism.
Deal enjoys strong support from evangelicals, who form a significant part of his base. A poll conducted in May for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed the governor had a favorability rating of 74 percent among white Protestant evangelicals.
Still, there's an inherent uncomfortableness when Deal is pressed on the point of faith. One example: He was invited to a DeKalb church in March to discuss how faith affects his personal life and leadership decisions. He instead spent much of his time talking about the waning days of the busy legislative session.
Carter is subtly highlighting his Baptist faith, too. His campaign recently hosted a fundraiser in the Plains hometown of his grandfather former President Jimmy Carter that concluded with a visit to hear the elder Carter deliver a Sunday school sermon at Maranatha Baptist Church.
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The younger Carter, too, has also delivered sermons at churches, including an address to a Methodist church in Columbus where he praised his grandfather's devout faith and how he believed his decision to join the Peace Corps was "a path laid out for me by God" and talked of serving the neediest.
"It's not about what you look like or how much money you gave, but it's about -- "Did you clothe the poor and feed the hungry?'"
A religious "foundation stone'
The governor's Holy Land visit is designed to attract more Israeli business to Georgia, but he was clearly intrigued by the religious sites. He questioned where ancient locales were, prayed outside Christian holy sites and paused for quiet reflection at the Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred place.
(His trip has not included any visits inside sites holy to Muslims, though it did involve a tour of the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Trip organizers cited the busy schedule and the long lines that stretched outside the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's most sacred sites.)
The visit to the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, clearly struck a nerve with the governor. After his tour of the church, he talked of how his religion gives him a "foundation stone" for setting out political priorities.
"Those are not the kinds of things that divide us," he said. "It should be faith and the importance of a belief in humanity and how we treat each other."