Fellow Democrat raises issue with Curren’s faith

“Do Augusta County Democrats have a death wish?”
That was what greeted me to the desk this morning, an e-mail note from a friend and Democratic Party strategist with a link to a story in today’s News Leader discussing 20th District House candidate Erik Curren’s religious beliefs and criticisms from fellow Democrat Tracy Pyles to the effect that someone with Buddhism among his beliefs is automatically fighting an uphill battle in the 20th.

I’d caught wind of an exchange on this issue between Pyles and Curren back in April and mentioned it in a roundabout way in a Truth and Rumors column that ran on April 30. Neither side was happy with even the oblique reference that I made to the issues that had been raised by Pyles in an e-mail to Curren that Curren’s religious background was such an issue that he ought to consider dropping out of the 20th District race, but after a couple of days of comments on the site and in private e-mail exchanges the matter seemed to have died a quiet death.

It came back to life, Pyles told me in an e-mail comment today, when Leader reporter Trevor Brown, the author of today’s news article, asked him a question on the topic. “I tried to make two points. One is that the voters in the 20th District still care about a person’s faith. I did not say for others it should, or it shouldn’t, only that it does. And I said I thought Erik should share with the people he would call to support him his faith. I simply asked for candidness on something that matters so greatly to some,” Pyles said in the e-mail.

That, as I understand, is similar to the message that Pyles relayed to Curren back in April right around the time that Curren was sewing up the Democratic Party nomination in the 20th. I also understand that Pyles advised Curren that the issue could be a deal-breaker for his candidacy and that he should consider bowing out of the race. That part of the message had Democrats with whom I was in contact on the matter at the time thinking that Pyles might have been trying to nudge Curren aside because he wanted to make another run at the 20th District seat. Pyles ran for the seat in 2001 and lost to Republican Chris Saxman, who announced last week that he would not seek re-election after serving four terms in the House of Delegates.

With Saxman now out of the way, some are wondering aloud again if Pyles isn’t trying to push Curren aside. I asked Pyles about that in our trade of e-mails. “Ask Trevor where he got his information, then maybe you can find someone that is angling for something. Because I did not initiate the call nor the question,” Pyles said. “You know that this has been a reservation of mine since April, and I have said nothing about it. Not in casual political conversation or in any way. Nor would I have. But when asked if I had asked him to step down, the answer was ‘yes,’ and if I had not said why it would have been assumed only that I was angling for it myself or there was something else not good.”

 

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So what about the substance of Pyles’ argument, that religion is a make-or-break issue on the campaign trail? Curren, whose campaign website reports that he regularly attends Crozet United Methodist Church, and who I also know from having attended services at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro over the past couple of years, thinks “there are sensible people on both sides of the aisle” on the issue.

“I’ve been talking to some Republicans today, and they feel as I do that this is a nonissue, that it’s a distraction from the real issues in the race, that religion should not be used to divide people, that it should be used to bring people together,” said Curren, the author of a book on contemporary Buddhism, Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today.

One reason it may be a nonissue for Republicans is that it’s not like every local elected Republican is from a mainline church background. Janice Lee Allen, an independent candidate for the Sixth District congressional seat in 2008, tried to make an issue of Republican Bob Goodlatte’s Christian Science beliefs, for example. Allen also played up Democrat Sam Rasoul’s Muslim background in her campaigning. Goodlatte still won by a healthy margin, and Rasoul’s 36 percent showing, though still a landslide loss, was the best showing for a Democrat in the Sixth District since Goodlatte’s first election in 1992.

Curren said religion is “not something that I get asked about by voters.” “Nobody has asked me what kind of food I like or what kind of music I listen to. So it does seem like a strange thing to come up,” Curren said.

“I wonder where people have their priorities. In the worst economy since the Depression, where people are losing their homes, and 300,000 Virginians are out of work, many through no fault of their own, and families are having a hard time putting gas i the tank and putting food on the table, and we have so many other issues to deal with on a statewide level, getting the trucks off I-81 and putting the resources back into the schools so that Virginia can have a world-class workforce so that we can remain one of the best states in which to do business, these are the issues of this race,” Curren said.

 

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Pyles said in an e-mail to me that a look at the volume of comments on the News Leader website on the issue proves his point. “If people want to have a debate on whether it should or not, that is one thing. And an important one worth vetting,” Pyles said.

I polled friends on Facebook today and got a smattering of opinions from across the spectrum on the matter.

“Just like most politician’s statements, it just leads me to more questions. I don’t think being both is possible,” Tim Baker of Fishersville wrote.

“So is he a Christian who philosophically has a Buddhist outlook? I’m not sure how one can be both. (I mean fully have both sets of beliefs unequivocally.) Just the fact that he espouses both faiths would actually make me lean towards voiting for him (spoken like a true UU!),” Pete Armetta of Waynesboro Facebooked.

“I’ll vote for him in a heartbeat,” Allen Layman of Staunton shared.

“I can see someone being a Christian believer and simultaneously a fundamental believer in the principles of Buddhism, but an active or serious practicing Christian and Buddhist would be frowned upon, I believe, by his fellow Christians if he openly expressed his seemingly disloyal Buddhist beliefs or practices,” Jim Belcher of Waynesboro wrote. “Christianity teaches one God, and although Mr. Curren might see Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings as those of a wise man, a teacher, my experience is Christianity would regard such a follower as in conflict with the one God rule. Like others mentioned above, is Mr. Curren a 10 on a 10 scale as a Christian, and likewise a 10 as a Buddhist, or how would he “scale” himself? Hmmm.”

 

– Story by Chris Graham

         
 

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