June 7, 2007
Although the presidential election of 2008 is still 17 months away, it is already very contested as indicated by the 18 announced Republican and Democrat candidates, the huge amount of money raised, and the numerous televised debates and forums of presidential hopefuls. As it often has in American history, the issue of religion is already playing a major role in the race for the Oval Office. In their presidential campaigns, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush spoke openly and frequently about their faith and its influence upon their policies. Recognizing that Reagan and Bush successfully appealed to religious voters, and cognizant of how important religion is to many Americans, candidates of both parties are accentuating their faith connections and commitments.
After the 2004 election Democrats reassessed their strategy for reaching the nation’s religious communities. Democratic leaders invited Jim Wallis, the editor of evangelical liberal Sojourners magazine, to advise them how to do this more effectively. The Democratic National Committee created the Faith in Action Initiative, which works to “strengthen and build relationships with members of the faith community .. based on our shared values and priorities.” Democrats also launched a website—FaithfulDemocrats.com—to help persuade the religiously devout to support their candidates. Its homepage declares: “The language of Scripture calls people to turn away from selfish desire and focus instead on serving God and their neighbors. ... Indeed, the Bible has thousands of verses promoting the values that Democrats hold dear—protecting the needy, embracing diversity, caring for God’s creation, working to resolve conflicts peacefully, and numerous others.” This is “why millions of Americans root their identity as Democrats in their faith as Christians.” Readers are urged to examine links to the scriptural topics of creation care, economic justice, family and culture, race and ethnicity, religion and the law, and war and peace, and to “spread the word” in their “congregations, workplaces, and communities.”
Meanwhile, the three leading Republican candidates all have a somewhat troubled relationship with religious conservatives, the group that gave high percentages of their votes to Reagan and Bush. Many evangelicals and conservative Catholics are very uncomfortable with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, dislike John McCain’s past treatment of them, and are turned off by Rudy Giuliani’s marital history and his stance on abortion and other social issues.
Recognizing the religious liabilities of Republican frontrunners and the need to win a higher percentage of the “religious vote,” leading Democratic candidates are speaking more candidly and passionately about their faith, especially about how it helps them deal with personal problems and guides their political priorities.
Illustrative of this trend is Monday’s debate sponsored by Wallis’ Sojourners/Call to Renewal organization televised on CNN. Hilary Clinton testified that “your faith guides you every day. Certainly, mine does.” “At those moments in time when you’re tested,” she added, directly referring to her marital troubles, “it is absolutely essential that you be grounded in your faith.” “I am very grateful that ... [my] faith ... gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought.” John Edwards shared that the death of his teenage son in 1996 helped rejuvenate his faith and declared, “I have a deep and abiding love for my lord, Jesus Christ.” Both Clinton and Edwards emphasized that they pray every day. A pastor asked Edwards, “When you pray, how do you know if the voice that you are hearing is the voice of God or your own voice in disguise?” He replied, “I ... ask the Lord to give me the strength to see the difference between what I want to do and what he wants me to do, and to give me the strength to do his will, and not my will.” Barack O’Bama, who discusses the nature and influence of his faith at length in his book The Audacity of Hope, focused more on the relationship of Christian principles to his policies than on his personal beliefs and practices.
As the campaign heats up, expect increased scrutiny of Democratic and Republican candidates’ faith commitments and their policy implications. Many Americans care deeply about the faith of prospective presidents because they see it as related to their moral values and the kind of leadership they will provide, especially in times of national crisis. While many religious conservatives continue to value strongly pro-life policies and oppose homosexual marriage, other religious Americans emphasize safeguarding the environment, reducing poverty and discrimination, and promoting peace. Moreover, the priorities of some evangelicals appear to be shifting, as 86 evangelical leaders recently adopted a major initiative to fight global warming and some megachurch pastors are focusing on combating AIDS. Although numerous factors will play a role in the 2008 campaign, religious issues will be very important and competition for the votes of religious Americans will be very intense.
Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College and is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).