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Faith and the Democratic five

The major candidates in the May primary talk about religion and its role in their lives.

Two are Catholic, two are Baptist, and one keeps his religious options open.

They are the five major Democratic candidates for mayor of Philadelphia. And while they are not brimming with Christian charity toward one another in the final days of the primary race, each says God and faith are important in his private and public life.

Both Catholics - U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and businessman Tom Knox - described themselves in interviews as regular churchgoers. Brady says he is deeply rooted in his boyhood parish and prays in time of crisis. Knox splits his churchgoing among several parishes - including his wife's Episcopal church - and describes himself as "self-reliant" when the going gets tough.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and former City Councilman Michael Nutter - the two Baptists - both converted from other faiths. And out of 2,000 churches in Philadelphia, these two rivals belong to the same West Philadelphia congregation.

Dwight Evans, the endorsed candidate of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, does not belong to any one congregation. But he believes strongly in the capacity of houses of worship to help provide social services.

For Brady, the longtime ward politician, church and neighborhood seem to go hand in hand. "I still belong to St. Callistus" parish in Cobbs Creek, where he was baptized, served as an altar boy, and was married.

The nuns at St. Callistus "taught me discipline, sometimes with whacks on the knuckles," he said with a laugh, "but they also taught me to see the good in other people."

He said he feels guilty praying for himself in times of difficulty, but prays "all the time" for others in need. "I'll say a Hail Mary, an Our Father."

Brady described himself as "very proud" that all his children are Catholic and all his grandchildren baptized. He is also godfather, he said, to "about 30 kids" born out of wedlock and in need of Catholic baptism.

Evans "went to church and Bible study every Sunday," he said in a recent interview, but drifted away from church in his teens. His undergraduate curriculum at La Salle College included what he calls "Bible courses," and as a young adult he "began to appreciate the importance of faith and religion."

Today, Evans doesn't belong to any one congregation. Rather, he said, he attends "scattered" churches around the city "just about every Sunday, for the preaching and the message."

Evans cited the late Rev. Leon Sullivan, an internationally known pastor from North Philadelphia, as "my role model."

He said he had partnered with churches to promote housing and economic development, and would turn to the city's houses of worship to "beat the violence."

In March, Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity - a coalition of pastors - endorsed Evans, calling him "a man with vision . . . and a passion to improve the whole city." He, in turn, said Black Clergy would "be a part of my administration" if he was elected.

For Fattah, finding the right church was a personal journey. He grew up Episcopalian in St. Philip's parish in Center City. Today, he is a member of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

Being Baptist is "not that far" from being Episcopalian, according to Fattah, who found his way into the Baptist faith while in his 20s. A close friend had become a Baptist pastor, he said, and "one thing led to another."

Regardless of one's denomination, he said, faith "is about understanding the central and sovereign power of God, and our responsibility to act on the essential underpinnings of Christianity."

"What we do for the least of these" - the poor - "is a very important question that confronts us as a human being. . . . The only way - in a city with a quarter of its population below the poverty line - is to lift up its citizens," Fattah said.

Like Fattah, Nutter made a journey from his childhood faith to one of his own choosing.

Although he was "was born and raised Catholic" and graduated from St. Joseph's Preparatory School, "some of the fundamentals of Roman Catholicism became of concern to me," he said in an interview. These included the Catholic Church's opposition "to abortion, gay rights and birth control."

Nutter drifted out of Catholicism in his early 20s, but "started to reconnect" when he began campaigning for city politicians and found himself visiting "church, church, church."

He was at Mount Carmel Baptist Church on the Sunday after 1985 MOVE bombing. He "so liked the message" of its pastor, the Rev. Albert F. Campbell, that he became a member. "It just felt like home."

Sundays find him "sometimes" at Mount Carmel - where Fattah also belongs - but some days he attends his wife's Episcopal church, or hanging out at home with her and his young daughter, doing "family time."

Despite his principled departure from Catholicism, Nutter said, he remains grateful to the Jesuit priests of St. Joseph's Prep for teaching him to be a "critical thinker" and a "man for others."

Tom Knox grew up in St. Bridget's parish in East Falls. With his injured father unable to work, "I sold newspapers outside the church instead," he recalled last week.

"Church is always important," he said, "but what has guided me has not been a gospel or a church but just a sense of doing the right thing."

"You can get that from within," he continued, adding that "you can be atheist and do the right thing."

Later he said, "I think most people go to heaven."

Asked if there was ever a personal crisis he felt God helped him through, he recalled how both his parents died when he was 20, leaving him to care for three younger brothers.

Instead of finishing the story with an account of petitions or promises to God, however, he said: "I've always been self-reliant."

Knox sometimes attends St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church near his home on Rittenhouse Square, he said, but also attends church near his summer home at the Jersey Shore, and joins his wife at Christ Episcopal Church in Old City.