Presidential candidates of both parties have talked more openly about their religious beliefs this year than in elections past, lifting a window on some of the values that could shape their decisions in the Oval Office. But the political benefits of such candor are not always clear in a country where most Republicans and Democrats believe in separation of church and state.
A holiday campaign ad featuring Republican Mike Huckabee, in a red sweater by a Christmas tree as "Silent Night" tinkles in the background, may be the latest example. Though Mr. Huckabee's courtship of conservative Christians has siphoned support from Mitt Romney and helped vault him to the top of the polls in Iowa in advance of the Jan. 3 caucuses, his overtly Christian ad has drawn fire from across the political spectrum. [Both men are profiled, along with other major presidential contenders, in the Monitor series "The Candidates: Faith & Values," at right.]
In the 30-second commercial, Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, wished viewers "Merry Christmas" instead of an ecumenical "happy holidays" and said "it's nice to pull aside" from politics and "just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and friends."
To some, the spot was no more offensive or profound than a Hallmark card. But the former Arkansas governor found himself defending it against criticism that its mix of faith and politics went too far.
"You can find Santa at every mall. You can find discounts in every store," Huckabee told worshippers Sunday at an evangelical megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, according to the Associated Press. "But if you mention the name of Jesus, as I found out recently, it upsets the whole world. Forgive me, but I thought that was the point of the whole day."
Not everyone saw it that way. The liberal blog wonkette.com mocked the ad as a "subliminal floating Christmas cheer," a reference to the Cross-like image formed by the brightly lit edges of a bookshelf behind Huckabee. Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing in the conservative National Review, accused Huckabee of "using Christ and Christmas to change the subject away from policy and [his] record."
US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a rival for the GOP nomination, told Fox News that the ad reminded him of the adage, "When fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross." And Catholic League President Bill Donohue urged Huckabee to "sell yourself on your issues, not on what your religion is."
Republicans have shown off their spiritual side on the hustings in part to cement their standing with evangelical Christians, a potent voting bloc in the early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. The Democrats, particularly Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have also spoken of their journeys of faith, in part to win over Protestants and Catholics who have soured on President Bush.
Scott Keeter, survey director at the Pew Research Center, says Americans want their presidential candidates to be religious – but not necessarily too religious.
Recent surveys of voters have found that beyond a basic perception that a presidential candidate has faith, "there isn't necessarily any particular benefit," Mr. Keeter said in a phone interview. "Indeed, there could potentially be a downside, with more secular people reacting negatively to what they see as excessive displays of faith" calculated for political gain.
A Pew survey in August found that the national front-runners for both parties – former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York – were viewed by Americans as the least religious of their parties' candidates. But with Huckabee and Mr. Romney in a fierce fight in Iowa, the bid for evangelical voters has intensified – and at times, critics say, crossed a line.
Several commentators singled out Romney's remark, in his Dec. 6 "Faith in America Speech," that "freedom requires religion." A Suffolk University survey of likely GOP voters in New Hampshire, where Romney leads in most polls, found that just 34 percent agreed.
"The candidates are confusing two arguments," Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist, wrote after Romney's speech. "The first, which conservatives are winning, is defending the legitimacy of religion in the public square. The second, which conservatives are bound to lose, is proclaiming the privileged status of religion in political life."
To judge from postings on Huckabee's campaign website, there are few such quibbles from his supporters. "God Bless you for affirming the beliefs of the majority of the citizens of the USA," one woman wrote last week. "We are ready to have Christ put back into OUR politics."