Curren's Faith An Election Issue

by Treavor Brown and Heather Kays, The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia), July 21, 2009

STAUNTON, VA (USA) -- Augusta County Supervisor Tracy Pyles said the faith of Erik Curren, a self-described practicing Buddhist and Christian, is an election issue that could cost the Democratic 20th District candidate the race.

"I asked (Curren) about his faith and he told me he is a Buddhist, and for me, that is an issue," said Pyles, who unsuccessfully ran for the 20th District House of Delegates seat as the Democratic candidate in 2001. "I don't see this district electing a Buddhist."

Pyles made the comments Monday during an interview about the state of the race after Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, announced he will not seek re-election. Although Pyles said he intends to vote for Curren in November, he said he has reservations of endorsing him because he practices Buddhism and for what he thinks is Curren's failure to be more forthcoming to voters about his faith.

"Church is fundamental to this region and it is part of who people are out here," he said. "It is an issue that he might get over by explaining to people, but I don't think he's let them know yet."
Curren: 'No religious test'

Curren sharply rejected Pyles' views that he is hiding his faith or that it should play a factor in the campaign when he says there are more important issues.

"There is no religious test for Virginia office holders, and the Democratic Party of Virginia actually has regulations against discriminating on the basis of religious beliefs," Curren said. "My experience is that the Shenandoah Valley is open-minded and tolerant as different religions go."

Curren, who wrote the book "Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today," also refuted he has not been open about his beliefs. He said he frequently attends Crozet United Methodist Church, as well as other churches in Staunton, and said he doesn't believe in "labeling" religious beliefs. Additionally, he said practicing Christianity and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive.

Although he said it is up to the voters to ultimately decide, he does not feel religious beliefs should outweigh legitimate policy positions of the candidates.

"Do I believe in God and Jesus and do I go to church? Yes," he said. "But should this be a qualification for office? No."
Potential voters weigh in

Several Staunton residents said they didn't feel religion should be an issue in local politics.

"The competency of the people and their stance on the issues is what matters," said Ted Cathey, a city resident. "Religion should not be a part of politics at all."

Tony Dimeo, 20, of Staunton, who attends St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, agreed.

"I think politics is one thing and religion is another," he said. "They are two separate things."

But Brittany Swann, 20, of Staunton disagreed.

"Religion should be part of politics. Not 100 percent. But somewhat," Swann said. "I don't think the church should step in and make the decisions, but it should be part of the way people vote. People put so much faith and trust in religion, it should be part of our society."