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The Politics of Faith

The 2008 presidential election may still be months away, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that this time, choosing the nation’s leader isn’t just about views on the war or the economy, or even about personality—it’s about religion. Though the power of the evangelical voting base has long been the object of attention among political observers and campaign strategists, it seemed to be (at least in recent memory) allied with Republican leaders. But with many young, Christian voters maintaining differing ideas about politics, that favor may be evening out between the two parties. A recent Time magazine feature put it this way: “Republicans have been charged with exploiting religious voters, Democrats with ignoring them.”

An early trend has developed as primary season grows closer: faith, mainly Christianity, at the center of politics. The movement to embrace faith (or at least spiritual rhetoric) is consuming much of Washington’s politics. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi even used faith in her argument defending the controversial matter of embryonic stem cell research—a practice many Christian leaders oppose—saying, “Science is a gift of God to all of us, and science has taken us to a place that is biblical in its power to cure.” Many of the current presidential candidates seem to have followed suit.

In the 2000 election, it was hard not to notice George W. Bush’s constant references to his Christian beliefs, and some credited his vocal faith for giving him an edge in the presidential race. Today, talking about faith no longer seems rare. Sen. John McCain has said, “I do believe that we are unique and that God loves us.” Sen. Barack Obama has testified to a “personal relationship” with Christ. Mike Huckabee (who is also an ordained Baptist minister), Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton have all made reference to their faith in high-profile speeches and debates. According to recent research, the strategy may be breaking stereotypes about faith and politics—and it holds a deep tactical significance on the campaign trail.

An estimated 80 percent of Americans claim religion is “important” in their lives. In the Time magazine article, John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, estimated that 22 million out of America’s 55 million Evangelicals have political concerns outside of evangelism and are worried about environmental and social justice issues.

From the Time story: “But the Republican lock on Evangelicals may be breaking. The percentage of white Evangelicals who self-identify as Republicans has declined from roughly 50% in 2004 to about 44% this past February, according to Green. Now the number is closer to 40% as more Evangelicals choose to label themselves independents.” A large number of those voters are under 30.

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Other polls found further evidence of the interplay of religious preferences and politics among the American public. One of the leading Republican candidates, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, is a professing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. An ABC-Washington Post poll conducted early this month showed that 32 percent of respondents who described themselves as Republicans felt “uncomfortable” with the idea of a Mormon president. A poll from the Pew Research Center revealed even more about the public’s concern with non-Christian candidates. Thirty percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, 46 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim and 63 percent said the same for a candidate who “doesn’t believe in God.”

With the primaries just around the corner and the presidential election on the horizon, many believe that how candidates present their religious beliefs will play a major role in their political success.

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