Playing with Fire

Mixing politics and religion can be a dangerous game
By Jodi Enda
Winter 2007-08

Less than two months before Iowans would go to their caucuses, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a “faithful citizenship statement” urging Catholics to “use the values of their faith to shape their political choice.” While the statement didn’t tell Catholics which candidates to vote for (or against), it reminded them of the “necessity” to oppose abortion and euthanasia and the obligation to promote the common good.

Meanwhile, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson was busy endorsing former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the only Republican candidate to support abortion rights. Mike Huckabee, a former
Baptist minister, was running an ad that touted him as a “CHRISTIAN LEADER” (in capital letters), with endorsements from Tim LaHaye, a conservative Christian author, and his wife Beverly LaHaye,
founder of Concerned Women for America. Fred Thompson was telling Christian conservatives at the Values Voter Summit that, if elected president, “In my first hour, I would pray for the
strength to do what’s right.”

Republican Mitt Romney, who suffered in the polls as Huckabee’s star rose, decided four weeks before voters weighed in that it was time to have his John F. Kennedy moment and explain his Mormon faith against the backdrop of the campaign.

And a YouTube questioner in a Republican debate asked the candidates if they believed every word of the Bible.

Not to be outdone, the Democrats,who in recent years have been reluctant to invoke religion in what they like to describe as big-tent campaigns, seem to have lost their inhibitions. Senator Barack Obama sponsored a “gospel tour” of South Carolina and “faith forums” in New Hampshire. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has interspersed references to her faith in her speeches and included the religious activities of her youth in her campaign biography. Obama, Clinton and former senator John Edwards participated in a forum on faith organized by the liberal evangelical group Sojourners.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) established a Faith in Action Initiative “to develop and maintain an integrated strategic plan for communicating with and organizing in communities of
faith around our shared priorities.” It has devoted an untold number of staffers to conduct outreach to voters of various religions, including Catholics, Jews, Muslims and evangelical Christians. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created a Democratic working group devoted to issues and people of faith.

If 2004 was the year of the so called “God Gap,” then 2008 is the year of God. Whether they attend church regularly, read the Bible or put their faith in a higher being, candidates no longer keep their religious practices to themselves. When it comes to religion, very little is private any more.

“It seems to be a race for pastor-in-chief rather than commander-in- chief,” said Suzie Armstrong, vice president of Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan advocacy organization.

Throughout American history, religion has had some bearing on politics, said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. But often, that influence is negligible, he said.

This is not such a time.

“We’re in one of those periods where religion’s on the front burner,” Green said. Four years after so-called “values voters” were credited with handing victories to President Bush and the then- Republican Congress, candidates of both parties are competing to out-religion each other. From the Moral Majority in 1980 to Karl Rove in 2004, Republicans long have used religion toward political ends.

But now that Democrats have found their religious voice, the 2008 campaign seems to have turned into a full-scale revival. The only question is whether the tent is big enough.

“After the 2004 election, there was a lot of talk in our party about how we might go about communicating our values and our faith in a better way,” said DNC press secretary Stacie Paxton. “What was happening too often was Democrats were providing their 20-page policy paper on health care reform but not talking about it in terms of their values and where those values come from. For some candidates, that might be a background of faith…

“Voters want to know where you stand, why you believe what you believe, how you would govern based on your values,” Paxton said. “For a long time, Democrats didn’t do as good of a job as we could talking about our faith and shared values, but that’s changing.”

Religion is at the forefront not because Americans are more observant than they were in the past, but because the public policy agenda is particularly engaging to voters of faith, Green explained. Issues such as abortion rights, stem-cell research, capital punishment, the environment, Darfur, poverty and war have particular resonance with religious voters up and down the political spectrum. The difference in 2008 is that politicians see that more clearly than they did in 2004. So do political organizations and faith based groups, such as the antichoice Priests for Life and the American Life League. But now, liberal clergy members have joined their conservative brethren in preaching their own political convictions. About 40 faith leaders from around the country attended a meeting of the DNC’s Faith Advisory Council in late November, then went home to talk up the party to other people of faith.

In late 2006, for the first time, congressional Democrats invited a non-elected official to deliver the party’s weekly radio address. Their guest? Rev. Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

“What’s happened is that Democrats have realized there are real opportunities for authentic engagement with the faith community,” said Eric Sapp, a senior partner at Common Good Strategies, which works with Democrats to reach out to religious communities. “There’s a lot of disillusionment out there, even in the far right, with the Republican Party and things that have been done by the religious right…. A number of Democrats are true people of faith and a lot of them are running because of their faith. That’s not something they should hide.”

Sapp’s business partner, Mara Vanderslice, was the director of religious outreach for John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, and struggled mightily to get the candidate to talk about his Roman Catholic background. By contrast, Sapp said, a number of Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates spoke openly about faith in 2006, a tactic that he said raised their standing among Catholics and white Protestants, including evangelicals.

There is a catch: “It has to be truly authentic,” Sapp said. “You have to approach it from a place of humility rather than arrogance.”

For years, President Bush has sprinkled his discourse with religious language, some of which is imperceptible to much of the non-evangelical public. When asked in his first presidential campaign to name his favorite philosopher, he cited Christ. In his first inaugural address, Bush referred to a higher power 10 times, according to Beliefnet, a Web site that reports on religion and religious issues. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, no president had mentioned God as often as Bush does in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses, Beliefnet reported.

Voters like their elected officials to be people of faith, according to public opinion polls. A national survey conducted in August 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 61 percent of Americans would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God.

“Religion continues to be seen in a positive light by the public,” said Greg Smith, a research fellow for the Pew Forum. “But there are some subtleties to this. While it is important for candidates to be seen as somewhat religious, they don’t have to be seen as very religious.”

Interestingly, Romney was viewed in the Pew poll as the most religious presidential candidate—but respondents felt less comfortable with his religion than with most others. One-quarter of respondents
said they would have reservations about voting for a Mormon, more than twice the percentage who said they would be reluctant to vote for a Jew (11 percent). Only 7 percent said they would have reservations about voting for a Catholic.

For months, Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said he would not discuss his religion. When he slipped behind Huckabee in Iowa polls—a result of the latter’s appeal to Christian conservatives— he changed his mind.

Yet Romney’s message was nothing like Kennedy’s, a clear reflection of the time in which each man sought the presidency. Kennedy saved his candidacy in part by pledging not to take direction from the pope, but also by laying out a vision for an America “where the separation of church and state is absolute….” Romney, by contrast, tried to reassure a Christian electorate that he shared their values and that religious beliefs do have a place in the public arena.

“I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind,” he declared. A bit later, he added: “We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should
dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning.”

They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”

It’s a far cry from the days in which Kennedy declared: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

So why is the public willing, perhaps even eager, to hear religious talk from political candidates? What difference does it make if the bishops or faith-based groups push particular issues, or if religious leaders endorse candidates?

The short answer is, it’s hard to tell. Voters don’t want to be bombarded by campaign propaganda, but they don’t mind religious outreach, said Green. On the other hand, they don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. “To most Americans,” Green said, “the pulpit is where they hear the voice of God.”

However, Smith found some shades of gray in a study he conducted for a book, Politics in the Parish: The Political Influence of Catholic Priests, to be released this year by Georgetown University Press. While there was no direct link between priests’messages and parishioners’ voting habits, Smith said there was a connection between those messages and parishioners’ religious attitudes. “And those religious attitudes do in turn tend to be politically oriented,” he said. Furthermore, Smith said, pastors who gave more engaging homilies were, not surprisingly, more effective in getting their messages across. Parishioners in their pews were more willing to accept guidance from the church, including guidance on issues such as abortion and stem cell research. The question then becomes who attends
church, which priests are effective communicators (the ones who talk about abortion or capital punishment, birth control or poverty?) and which messages take precedence.

“If you’re a Catholic who is attempting to follow all of the teachings of the church in the context of American politics, who wants to vote for antiabortion, anti-capital punishment, pro-welfare spending,
antiwar candidates, it’s not at all clear who you vote for,” Smith said.

Candidates also have to be careful about lumping their politics with their religion in the wrong place and at the wrong time. What works in Iowa might not work in California, and what works in a primary might not carry over to the general election.

“It’s a dangerous game to play,” said Armstrong of the Interfaith Alliance, which encourages voting participation but does not endorse. “When candidates appeal to voters on the basis of their faith, they risk excluding those who don’t share their faith traditions or who hold no faith beliefs. It heads in the direction that their religious beliefs guide them rather than the values in the Constitution.”

Further, she noted, people of faith— even those of the same faith—don’t necessarily vote the same way.

“Because religious voters have been seen as this voting bloc, it’s been tempting for candidates to see this as a Christian nation and to address their messages that way,” Armstrong said. “Ultimately, the candidates who succeed are the ones who talk with courage and integrity about their beliefs on policy, not their religious beliefs.”

Jodi Enda is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to 

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