'08 race has got religion. Is that good?
A greater focus on candidates' faith is generally applauded, but some cite reasons for caution.
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Others, however, say voters have the right to ask questions that will tell them whether a candidate shares their values or worldview, religious or otherwise.Skip to next paragraph
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In defense of the event, the Rev. Jennifer Butler of Faith in Public Life, the group that sponsored the forum, said it was held "so people of diverse faiths could ask the candidates about moral issues that cut across ideological divides.... The voters care more about the common good than the culture wars."
Still, some questions have verged on the bizarre, such as asking former Governor Romney about Mormon undergarments. "The media thinks that since religion is a legitimate area of inquiry, somehow anything goes," Ms. Rogers says. "I hope we can work toward developing more good rules of thumb for handling this."
Foremost, though, how the parties and the candidates employ religion will determine whether the campaign is unusually rancorous or fosters discussion of values.
Some problems to watch for, says religion historian Martin Marty, include the flaunting of religious identity, the exploitation of religion, and attempts to squelch or denigrate other voices.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist pastor, was criticized during early primaries for emphasizing that he was "a Christian leader," for airing a Christmas ad in which bookshelf edges formed a white cross in the background, and for saying explicitly that his rise in the polls was due to divine influence.
A bit more subtly, Senator Obama in October told a congregation "I am confident we can create a Kingdom right here on earth" and issued brochures focused on his being a "Committed Christian."
Senator McCain – ordinarily reticent about faith – caused an outcry after asserting during an interview last September that America was founded as "a Christian nation" and saying he preferred a Christian president. Some saw his comments as more than just a mistake. "It was a subtle suggestion that Romney, a Mormon, is not Christian," says Dr. Domke. "And it helped him draw enough Christians to prevent all going off to Huckabee."
The campaign has also brought examples of denigrating others' convictions and misrepresenting their faith. In his speech on religion in December, Romney explicitly left out nonbelievers when he said that religion requires freedom, and "freedom requires religion." Such uses of faith, critics say, relegate millions of nonbelieving Americans to second-class citizens.
The most flagrant attack may be Web-centric efforts of unknown origin to paint Obama as a Muslim. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in March seemed willing to benefit from that attempt when she said that it wasn't true, "as far as I know."
In response, Democrats who are not keen on the rising role of religion in the campaign seem willing to give Obama a pass on his "Committed Christian" brochures, seeing them as necessary to informing voters of the truth.
Many expect religion's high profile to continue through the general election. Some worry that tax-exempt political organizations, known as 527 groups, could act as a tinderbox, whether by resurrecting the controversial pastors or misrepresenting candidates' religious convictions.
"The ground here is volatile, depending on what candidates' supporters do," Domke says. "If the candidates can control these folks and squelch [negative] messages, we could have a pretty good discussion about faith and the presidency."