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Faith's role on the rise in Campaign 08

A new Pew poll on religion and politics finds that 70 percent of Americans want a president with strong religious beliefs.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2007

For people who've tuned into this year's presidential debates, it's clear the candidates aren't hesitant to talk religion. Apparently, that makes a lot of sense.

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Most Americans (almost 70 percent) say they want a president with strong religious beliefs, and they are comfortable with the discussion of faith in the election campaign. In fact, 38 percent say there's "too little" discussion of religion, according to the latest Pew poll on religion and politics, released Sept. 6.

"It's an interesting election cycle in that we have this high level of discussion on faith and values in both political parties ... [and] 38 percent still want more," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.

The role religion will play in voters' political choices, however, remains far from clear. Paradoxically, the front-runners in both parties – Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton – are currently perceived as the least religious among the candidates.

Hot-button social issues of concern to religious activists are taking a back seat to Iraq and domestic issues, even among Evangelicals. Seventy-eight percent of Americans cite domestic issues (such as the economy, healthcare, and the environment) and 72 percent cite Iraq as very important in their decisions, while 38 percent cite social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Among Evangelicals, 72 percent highlight domestic issues; 66 percent, Iraq; and 56 percent, social issues.

For Evangelicals – especially the younger generation – the agenda is changing, and in ways that are likely to affect politics, according to the Rev. Jim Wallis, who heads Sojourners, a progressive evangelical ministry. Reverend Wallis, the author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," says he's spending lots of time on Christian college campuses, where he's debating the "moral issues of 2008" with leaders of the religious right.

"Evangelicals still care about the sanctity of human life, but they also care deeply about poverty, climate change, HIV/AIDS, Darfur, the war in Iraq," he says. "Whoever addresses those issues from a moral perspective will be attractive to Evangelicals. Their votes are really in play."

Candidates in both parties are making a pitch on faith and values, but particularly Democrats. Since 2004, they've been working to erase an image of being inhospitable to religion with an outreach effort by state parties and on the campaign trail. Barack Obama, for instance, who captured national attention a year ago with a speech on religion in politics, is holding "faith forums" in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"This time the top three Democrats happen to be articulate about their faith," Wallis says. "And they're connecting values with policies."

Democrats show more of their faith

The Pew poll suggests they've made modest gains so far. The percentage of Americans who see the Democratic party as friendly to religion has risen by 4 percent over the past year, and the percentage who see nonreligious liberals as having too much power in the party dropped from 44 to 37 percent since 2005.

"These are modest but significant indications that the effort by Democratic leaders to change their image is bearing some fruit," says Dr. Green, an expert on US politics and religion.