Inquisition 2008: Candidates Get Grilled by the Media's Holy Standards

Democratic presidential contender John Edwards was in a tough spot.

Participating in a CNN debate on "faith and values," Edwards was confronted with a question that can best be described as the theological equivalent of "Are you still beating your wife?" Host Soledad O'Brien pressed Edwards to discuss the "biggest sin you've ever committed."

Edwards dodged the question, telling O'Brien, "I'd have a very hard time telling you one thing, one specific sin. If I've had a day in my 54 years that I haven't sinned multiple times I'd be amazed. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask for forgiveness from the Lord."

During the same June 4 event, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was asked to explain how her faith got her through her husband's marital infidelity, and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was asked if he believes God takes sides in wars.

Many Americans might be surprised that such questions are being asked at all, given the pressing international and domestic issues vying for the candidates' attention. With a war in Iraq raging, health care in crisis and energy costs spiraling, lots of voters are interested in hearing the candidates' specific policy positions on key issues, not bromides on how often a candidate prays and what he or she prays for.

Yet many candidates remain convinced that millions of voters are fixated on religion -- and the media apparently agrees. Although the general election is more than a year off, the topic of faith has been unusually prominent so far. Indications are that will continue.

The phenomenon is bipartisan. As some Democrats seek to add a little more "God talk" on the stump, Republican contenders are frequently heard talking about religion -- an attempt to sway voters aligned with the Religious Right, a well-funded, well-organized presence in the GOP that always flexes more muscle during the primary season, when more ideologically minded voters are active.

Why is religion so prominent in the race so soon? Several factors are at work. Among them is what may be a sea change in the way the Democratic Party deals with religion. Democrats are being advised by moderate evangelicals like Jim Wallis to talk more openly about faith and God. (A Wallis group, Call to Renewal, sponsored the June debate on CNN. A similar event is planned for the top GOP candidates.) In the 2006 elections, some Democrats won seats after raising religious themes. Some advisors want the party to exploit this trend.

Time magazine reported July 12 on the efforts of one of those strategists, Mara Vanderslice, who worked on John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004 and advised various Democratic campaigns in 2006. Last year, it was reported that Vanderslice, who was raised Unitarian but converted to evangelical Christianity as an adult, advised candidates not to use the term "separation of church and state," arguing it alienates some voters.

Vanderslice has more advice for the Democrats in 2008.

"It has to be authentic," she told recently. "This is not about 'Jesus-ing' up the party, so to speak .... It just won't work if it's seen as a cynical ploy."

Leading Democratic officials are paying attention to this type of advice. On Capitol Hill, Time reported, Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) to oversee an effort to reach out to religious voters.

According to Time, Price chastised his colleagues for their stands on some church-state issues. For example, Price argues that Democrats missed an opportunity when President George W. Bush launched his "faith-based" initiative.

"We should have said, 'Welcome to the fray, Mr. President. Where have you been? Because we have been at this a long time. So we want to work with you on that,'" Price said. "Instead, Democrats took a dim view of it almost in principle."

Oval Office aspirants like Clinton, Obama, Edwards and others are taking the advice to boost talk about religion as well. As the newsweekly noted, "Clinton has hired Burns Strider, a congressional staffer (and evangelical Baptist from Mississippi) who is assembling a faith steering group from major denominations and sends out a weekly wrap-up, Faith, Family and Values. Edwards has been organizing conference calls with progressive religious leaders and is about to embark on a 12-city poverty tour. In the past month alone, Obama's campaign has run six faith forums in New Hampshire, where local clergy and laypeople discuss religious engagement in politics."

As party strategist Mike McCurry told Time, "What we're seeing is a 'Great Awakening' in the Democratic Party," invoking a period in early American history when evangelical forms of religion became popular.

Talk about God reverberates on the stump. On the campaign trail, Obama has perhaps exploited this most skillfully. The junior senator from Illinois came to national attention largely because of a speech he delivered during the 2004 Democratic Party convention. During the speech, Obama uttered a line that has since become famous: "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states -- red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."

On the hustings, Obama is often upfront about his faith, sometimes mentioning his conversion and his longtime membership in the United Church of Christ. His Web site contains a special section titled "People of Faith for Barack" that includes personal endorsements from several members of the clergy and excerpts from speeches the Illinois senator has given about the role of religion in his personal and public lives. (Obama, however, has also endorsed the separation of church and state, noting that many evangelicals fought for it in the colonial era.)

The media has picked up on this trend and, in fact, fueled it. A spate of "Democrats-get-religion" stories has appeared, as well as religious profiles of specific candidates. In early July, The New York Times ran a lengthy front-page article focusing on Clinton's religious life. The New York senator talked of how she carries a Bible on the campaign trail, reads commentaries on the Scripture and how she has felt "the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions."

Clinton added that she believes in the resurrection of Jesus but is less certain that Christianity is the only path to salvation.

But there are dangers to such an approach as well. At least a third of the Democratic Party base is composed of voters who attend church rarely, if ever. Many of these secularists are wary of the new emphasis on God talk and are concerned that the party might be moving away from its stand in favor of church-state separation.

Some analysts say the Democrats' success in 2006 came because the party captured a larger percentage of voters who say they don't go to church. Exit polls showed the Democrats' share of this vote rose from 60 percent to 67 percent. Analysts argue that this bloc provided the margin of victory and assert that attempts to win over conservative evangelicals are bound to fail.

Polls show most Americans are wary of basing policy explicitly on a politician's interpretation of the Bible. A poll released by Time magazine in July asked, "Do you think that a president should or should not use his or her personal interpretation of the Bible to make decisions as president?" A solid majority of 62.2 percent said no. Less than half that number, 28.7 percent, said yes.

Even most self-identified Republicans were wary, with 46.4 percent saying they disagree with Bible-based policy, and 42.6 percent agreeing.

Nevertheless, religious themes have frequently driven the Republican campaign this season as candidates seek to curry favor with the Religious Right.

Many Religious Right activists are horrified at the thought that former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani will win the nomination. Giuliani is pro-choice on abortion, favors some gay rights and has been married three times. Candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) are closely identified with the Religious Right, but concerns linger that they would be weak candidates in the general election. Some Religious Right leaders hope to stop Giuliani by promoting an alternative, such as former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).

James Dobson, the Religious Right powerhouse who founded Focus on the Family, has been clear about Giuliani.

"I cannot, and will not," he said, "vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It is an irrevocable decision."

The right-wing evangelical magazine World reported that Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said something similar: "I wouldn't even consider voting for him." Meanwhile, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (FRC) has also blasted Giuliani.

With the GOP front-runner failing to inspire enthusiasm, other candidates are seeking the Religious Right vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been making a strong play for it. However, political observers say Romney has two strikes against him: He ran as a moderate on social issues when seeking office in Massachusetts, and he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons).

Romney now claims his positions on issues like abortion and gay rights have changed. Some evangelicals accept that transformation, but others remain wary. In addition, members of a hardcore faction that considers Mormonism a cult often challenge Romney about his membership in the Mormon faith during public events.

Influential Religious Right leaders have spurned Romney's overtures as well. In mid July, Max Blumenthal of The Nation reported that Romney was being "swift-boated" through a coordinated effort.

The assault began July 5 when Focus on the Family attacked Romney in a press release, asserting that Romney did nothing to stop Marriott Hotels from offering pornographic movies in rooms during his tenure on the hotel chain's board from 1992-2001.

The FRC soon piled on, blasting Romney's supposed tolerance for porn to the Associated Press. The assault was also distributed to various right-wing Web sites.

Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) quickly joined the attack. The AFA's right-wing news service, OneNewsNow, ran a video clip of FRC President Tony Perkins criticizing Romney.

"This carefully sequenced attack on Romney over hotel porn is just the opening volley in what appears to be a concerted effort to doom his candidacy," wrote Blumenthal. "Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association's Michigan chapter, told me, 'This is just part of a broader pattern of concern over Mitt Romney's record of aggressively promoting abortion on demand, the homosexual agenda and gun control. We are judging Romney by his record.'"

Blumenthal also reported that the FRC is promoting Thompson to Religious Right activists behind the scenes.

"Less than two weeks before Focus on the Family launched its attack on Romney, the Family Research Council began an informal campaign to rally support for Thompson," he wrote. "Without fanfare, the Family Research Council's director of web communications, Joe Carter, and the group's web editor, Jared Bridges, founded 'Blogs for Fred,' a website that alternately shields Thompson from criticism and promotes him as the Great Right Hope. When Carter and Bridges are not plumping for Thompson, they blog on the website of the Family Research Council, advancing the causes of faith, family and freedom for the purportedly nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization."

Hoping to deflect the attacks, Romney continues to play up his Religious Right friendly views. He recently released a new television commercial that attacks popular culture as violent and over-sexualized. Romney promises to clean up Web-based porn but does not say how.

Romney can also point to support from a few prominent Religious Right figures. His "Faith and Values Steering Committee" includes TV preacher Pat Robertson's top attorney Jay Sekulow, Religious Right public relations wizard Mark DeMoss and California gay-bashing minister Lou Sheldon. One of Sekulow's sons, Jordan, serves on a similar Romney committee.

Brownback has had to make do with a lesser light. "Christian nation" advocate David Barton has been making campaign appearances on behalf of the Kansas senator.

Thompson, meanwhile, is making a big play for the movement's vote as well. U.S. News reported July 15 that Thompson has hired Bill Wichterman, who served as liaison to conservative groups for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Joseph Cella, president of the ultra-orthodox Catholic group Fidelis, to lead an effort to reach out to religious conservatives.

Reported Dan Gilgoff, "The aides are arranging more meetings between Thompson and conservative Christian leaders and have launched a rapid-response operation to fend off attacks on Thompson's conservative credentials."

Romney and Thompson aren't the only GOP hopefuls wooing the Religious Right. Others are stressing religious themes as well. At one Republican debate, the candidates were asked if they accept evolution. Three candidates -- Huckabee, Brownback and Tancredo -- said they reject it outright, and many of the others dissembled.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who blasted the Religious Right as "agents of intolerance" in 2000, has been eager to make amends this time around. After saying he accepts evolution during the debate, McCain quickly issued a statement backing the teaching of "other theories," a move that was seen as a sop toward "intelligent design."

Even Giuliani has been scrambling to find ways to move to the right. He has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, and he has appeared at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University. While there, Giuliani sat down for an interview with Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

Asked about the Supreme Court's school prayer rulings, Giuliani said, "I thought some of them went too far in the direction of over-emphasizing separation of church and state, and underemphasizing the free exercise of religion."

But there's a risk in all of this. A recent poll of Republican voters, conducted for the Republican Main Street Partnership and three other moderate GOP organizations by Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates, found 53 percent saying the party "has spent too much time focusing on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage and should instead be spending time focusing on economic issues such as taxes and government spending." Seventy-two percent said the government should not interfere with legal abortion, and nearly 80 percent backed employment protections for gay people.

Results like this have infuriated Religious Right leaders. Texas preacher Rick Scarborough, who longs to take the late Jerry Falwell's place, blasted the poll results in a message to supporters, calling on his backers to sign a petition to the Republican National Committee demanding that the party "remain true to its pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-Biblical morality base."

Scarborough also vowed to hold a series of rallies called "70 Weeks to Save America," claiming he hopes to reach two million "values voters."

Aside from making it clear that Giuliani is unacceptable, Scarborough has been coy about the GOP field. Other Religious Right leaders have not been so reticent.

The SBC's Land has spent the past few months acting as a Republican powerbroker, despite his denomination's tax-exempt status and alleged non-partisanship.

Land looks to be solidly in Thompson's camp. He has called the former senator a "southern-fried Reagan" and gushed about Thompson's ability to connect with a crowd. In May, the Southern Baptist lobbyist introduced Thompson before a meeting of the secretive Council for National Policy, an influential war council of far-right leaders. During his remarks, Thompson blasted the Supreme Court for its rulings upholding church-state separation.

Thompson hasn't won over everyone. FOF's Dobson has suggested that Thompson's commitment to the Christian faith is weak. Thompson is a member of the fundamentalist Church of Christ denomination, but some critics have noted that he doesn't seem especially active. Thompson and his second wife, Jeri Kehn, were married in the United Church of Christ, an unrelated denomination that is theologically liberal.

In an attempt to pose as even-handed, the Family Research Council plans to hold a national conference called "The Washington Briefing 2007" Oct. 19-21 in the nation's capital. The FRC claims that all of the 2008 presidential contenders have been invited, but Democratic candidates are unlikely to spend time speaking at such a hostile venue. In fact, FOF and the FRC have made their disdain for the Democratic field clear. Leaders of the groups seem infuriated that the Democrats are daring to raise religious themes this time.

Tom Minnery, senior vice president of government and public policy for Focus on the Family, attacked Obama in a July 5 column that was distributed through WorldNetDaily, a right-wing Web site.

Minnery called Obama "thoroughly misleading about the proper roles of religion and government" for suggesting that government should play a bigger role in the provision of health care and aid to the poor.

Minnery's boss, James Dobson, has been hosting meetings with GOP contenders and is expected to issue an endorsement closer to the election. He has not bothered to meet with any Democrats. Dobson, who has formed a political arm called Focus on the Family Action, claims to endorse candidates as an individual, which the law allows.

But other efforts undertaken by Religious Right groups and leaders are legally questionable. FRC's attack on Romney and its tacit support for Thompson appears to be an attempt to affect the outcome of the race. Such tactics skirt the legal line and may, in fact, lurch over it.

As the election season plays out, Americans United (the organization which publishes Church and State magazine) has re-activated its Project Fair Play to assure that houses of worship and non-profit religious groups abide by the law. The Internal Revenue Service has signaled a crackdown on abuses as well.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has criticized the overemphasis on religion in both parties, discussing the issue frequently in the media.

At a recent forum on religion in public life in Austin, Lynn blasted candidates in both parties for "hiring ethics and religion advisers -- that is to say, spin doctors." Lynn added, "It suggests they are not really comfortable themselves knowing whatever it is they do believe.

"This is pandering," Lynn concluded.

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