Presidential Candidates Know Religion Plays a Role in Election

November 2, 2008 at 6:10 am Leave a comment

mccain-obama-15.jpg There’s been
lots of talk about Wall Street and Main Street in the 2008 presidential
election. But Church Street looms large, too. 
“Religion has
been more prominent in this election than even in the elections of 2004
and 2000,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of
Akron and senior fellow of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.


Everything
from Mormonism to Pentecostalism to Black Liberation Theology has been
discussed at one juncture or another. A “religious left” emerged in an
effort to balance the religious right. A pastor – the Rev. Rick Warren
of Saddleback Church in California – moderated the first televised
showdown between Republican candidate John McCain and Democratic
candidate Barack Obama.

Religion has manifested itself
locally, with three North Texas pastors joining about 30 others
nationally in endorsing or opposing presidential candidates from the
pulpit, something the IRS prohibits for tax-exempt churches. The
Catholic bishops of Dallas and Fort Worth recently sent a point-blank
letter to parishioners, saying Catholic doctrine makes it “morally
impermissible” to vote for candidates who support abortion rights.

Religion “just seems exponentially more a part of things,” said the
Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, who
himself has preached on the election, encouraging voter participation
and greater civility in political discourse.

‘Animating force’

In 2008, concerns about the struggling economy will guide voters’
decisions far more than culture war issues, such as abortion and
same-sex marriage, said Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice
University and author of the book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.

But Dr. Lindsay said religion has remained the “animating force” of
campaign rhetoric, not least because Democrats felt that John Kerry’s
discomfort with discussing his Catholic faith contributed to his defeat
by President Bush four years ago.

Between elections, the
Democratic Party formed faith study groups, became more open to
supporting anti-abortion candidates in their party, and forged ties
with liberal faith-based organizations. The top Democratic presidential
candidates – Mr. Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards – all talked
openly about their Christian faith.

Mr. Obama won the
nomination, but only after religion-related struggles. One was the
rumor – still accepted by a small minority of Americans, according to
surveys – that he is a Muslim. More serious was the video footage,
widely seen via TV and the Internet, of his longtime pastor and
spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, saying “God [condemn]
America” in a social justice sermon. Many black pastors
tried to explain the context, and a brief national tutorial ensued
about the prophetic tradition of black preaching and Black Liberation
Theology. But Mr. Obama would soon cut ties with Dr. Wright.

Mr. Obama had more damage control to do after he said some people in
economically distressed small towns “cling to guns and religion” and
that the question of when a baby should get human rights was “above my
pay grade.” But polls show him outperforming Mr. Kerry with Catholic
voters, and modestly narrowing the Republicans’ advantage with white
evangelical voters.

The GOP has had its own adventures
with religion. One of its primary candidates was Mitt Romney, who had
to try to allay concerns about his Mormon faith. Another was Mike
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor.

The winner, of
course, was John McCain, who blasted elements of the religious right
for intolerance during his failed 2000 bid for the nomination. Since
then, he has tried to make amends.

Picking Palin

But Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist
University, said many evangelical voters remain unconvinced of Mr.
McCain’s commitment to their issues. And Dr. Lindsay, of Rice,
described Mr. McCain as “not getting the tune” in talking about faith.

Mr. McCain thrilled many religious conservatives by choosing Gov. Sarah
Palin of Alaska as his running mate. Her decision to give birth to son
Trig after tests showed he had Down syndrome demonstrated, as rhetoric
could never do, her opposition to abortion. But questions have
persisted about her qualifications to step in as president, and
opponents seized on video footage of her speaking at a Pentecostal
church and asking congregants to pray for a natural gas pipeline
project she supported.

In its closing days, the election
has provided sermon fodder for North Texas clergy. Though not
previously known as political, the Rev. Ed Young, pastor of the large,
influential Fellowship Church in Grapevine, aligned himself with the
religious right through a sermon series called “Politicked,” as in
ticked off. He vented about the federal government (describing it as
“Fedzilla”) and decried abortion and same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, leader of predominantly black
megachurch Friendship-West Baptist, makes no secret of his support for
Mr. Obama. Friendship-West will have an Election Night Watch Party, and
Dr. Haynes said it will be full of people hoping to witness Mr. Obama’s
election as the nation’s first black president.

“The
climate of support for him [at Friendship-West] seems to be stronger
than anything I’ve ever witnessed,” Dr. Haynes said.

Occupying an interesting middle ground is the Rev. Tony Evans, pastor
of 8,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship. Dr. Evans is strongly
anti-abortion, and a friend of President Bush. He’s also black and
feels pride “that a person of color can be seriously considered for the
presidency.”

While conservative on social issues, Dr.
Evans said he reminds religious right groups that “protection for the
unborn in the womb” must be matched by “justice to the tomb” – as in
civil rights and attention to public education and health care.

In a sermon series, Dr. Evans laid out what he sees as the biblical
position on key issues. But he didn’t endorse a candidate and told his
flock to be wary of political parties.

“I argued that God
is the ultimate independent,” he said. “He doesn’t ride the backs of
donkeys or elephants.”

Source: Dallas Morning News

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