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'08 race has got religion. Is that good?

A greater focus on candidates' faith is generally applauded, but some cite reasons for caution.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2008

Christian base: As a presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee stressed his religious values, such as in this Christmas time ad.

Huckabee Campaign/AP/File

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There was Mitt Romney's speech to try to dispel concerns about his Mormon faith. There was Barack Obama's denunciation of certain beliefs of his longtime pastor. Last week it was John McCain's turn to cut himself off from two controversial preachers whose endorsements he had once sought. And throughout the presidential primary season, there have been candidate forums on religious beliefs, plus eager courting of evangelical Christians, Catholics, and other faith groups.

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Are religion and faith playing an appropriate role – or an inappropriate one – in the 2008 presidential campaign? So far, it's some of both, say those who've been monitoring the campaign.

There's no arguing that religious speech is more prominent than ever this election season. That's in part because Democratic candidates, traditionally reluctant to discuss religious views out of privacy concerns, have warmed to the topic in recognition that many voters want an understanding of how a president's religious convictions might influence him or her in office.

Whether this focus on candidates' religious views is helpful or detrimental depends, say political observers, on how the political parties, faith groups, and the news media handle faith issues in coming months.

Religious talk in ads and on the stump, "gotcha" questions during debates, and aggressive outreach to religious groups sometimes have crossed the line in ways that some observers say harm the country.

Inappropriate use of religion "can be dangerous and divisive for our pluralistic democracy ... and it can end up harming the integrity of religion," says Melissa Rogers, who teaches religion and public affairs at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Religious ideas are much bigger than political parties or candidates, she says, but they lose their dimension when people in the pulpit suggest that voters of faith should support a particular candidate or that God looks with favor on one party over another.

According to polls, most Americans want a president with strong religious beliefs and they want to know how a candidate's faith shapes his or her values and policy proposals. The trouble comes, some say, when political leaders use religion as a weapon to inflict political harm.

"During the last couple of decades there's been a dramatic tilt toward a more partisan religious political culture," says David Domke, communications professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and coauthor of "The God Strategy."

Critics also cite news media that turn faith into mere entertainment or play it for controversy. Some questions asked during televised debates have been helpful, they say, but others have been inappropriate or irrelevant, bordering on religious vetting. The Interfaith Alliance (TIA), a religious liberty watchdog, became so concerned it released a video called "Top Ten Moments in the Race for Pastor-in-Chief." Among the questions it criticized: "What's the worst sin you've committed?" and "Do you believe every word of the Bible?"

"Why ask Senator Clinton about 'feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit'?" complained TIA president Welton Gaddy after the Compassion Forum aired on CNN in April. "Far more useful would be specific questions about how their faith would impact their policy positions."

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