Candidates Plunder the Pews in Their Altar Call for Votes

Election '08

Although no one realized it at the time, a defining moment of modern American politics occurred on Dec. 13, 1999.

Six Republican hopefuls met for a debate that evening at the Des Moines Civic Center. During the event, moderator John Bachman of WHO-TV asked each candidate to name his favorite political philosopher.

George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, took some observers aback when he replied, "Christ, because he changed my heart." Asked to say more, Bush responded, "When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me."

Several of Bush's GOP opponents were quick to add that they, too, respect and revere Jesus.

At the time, Bush's answer raised a few eyebrows and was discussed in the media for a few days. More than one commentator thought his identification of Jesus as a political philosopher was odd, but soon the media moved on.

The answer, however, turned out to have legs. It came to be viewed as a signal by Bush to many evangelical Christian voters, a way of saying "I'm one of you." They went on to back Bush heavily and stuck by him during the disputed election of 2000. Some analysts say evangelicals were pivotal to his reelection in 2004.

Since then, the "Jesus Factor" has continued to reverberate in politics. Republican presidential aspirants have been eager to tap into what is perceived to be a rich vein of votes.

At the same time, some advisers began telling Democratic candidates to be more open in discussing their faith, in the hope that they might sway some of these voters. Although Democratic hopeful John F. Kerry never seemed to warm to this advice in 2004, this year candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama are taking it to heart. The result is even more religious talk on the stump.

Consider these recent developments:

  • Obama, addressing a huge rally in Columbia, S.C., Dec. 9, opened by saying, "Giving all praise and honor to God" then quoted Psalm 118: "Look at the day the Lord has made!"

  • Addressing voters in Iowa shortly before Christmas, former president Bill Clinton cited the Book of Romans, saying the Bible instructs people to "be good citizens as well as good followers of the Lord." Hillary Clinton took to the podium and quoted the same biblical passage as Obama: "This is the day the Lord has made."

  • U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated his belief that America is a Christian nation, telling last year, "I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, personally, I prefer someone [as president] who has a grounding in my faith."

  • Some candidates are even parsing doctrines related to Jesus. In one highly publicized flap, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee questioned Mormon doctrine, asking, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" (Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, later apologized to Romney.)

    American campaigns, which have always had more religion in them than electoral contests in other Western democracies, now frequently sound like Bible-quoting contests.

    When the media gets involved, it becomes an inquisition. During this primary season, candidates have been quizzed on how often they attend religious services, whether they believe the Bible is literally true, what sins they've committed and other faith-centric questions. They've been asked if they believe in evolution and prodded to name a favorite Bible verse.

    At times, the emphasis on religion has pushed other issues into the background -- issues that many Americans tell pollsters are their top concerns, such as the state of the economy, the sub-prime loan crisis, health care and the war in Iraq.

    The rhetoric, although probably stirring to some believers, may mask more than it reveals. It runs the risk of becoming simply a rhetorical flourish. Obama and Huckabee quote the same Bible, after all, yet their stands on issues -- especially contentious social issues -- are poles apart.

    Obama quotes scripture, but it took the Huckabee upsurge to really boost the profile of Jesus on the campaign trail. Relegated to second-tier status just a few months ago, Huckabee's startling rise has been attributed to voters in the Religious Right, a movement many media pundits had consigned to the political graveyard.

    It appears the Religious Right isn't dead yet. The day after the Iowa caucuses, James C. Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, jubilantly cited Huckabee's victory as a clear sign that the evangelical movement remains vital.

    Huckabee pulled off an upset win, besting Romney 34 percent to 25 percent. Romney outspent Huckabee 20 to 1, but exit polls showed that Huckabee rode a wave of support from evangelical Christians to victory.

    "The results of the Iowa caucuses reveal that conservative Christians remain a powerful force in American politics," said Dobson in a statement issued to supporters. "That had to be a great shock to those on the far Left! The New York Times wrote a demeaning obituary of Values Voters in an article called The Evangelical Crackup. CNN piled on, proclaiming the demise of the 'old values,' referring to traditional marriage and the sanctity of human life. They and other media elites turned out to be dead wrong."

    The ascension of Huckabee, who as recently as November was polling in the single digits, caught many political analysts off guard. A wave of recent stories about the so-called "death" of the Religious Right led many to assume that the movement was losing steam.

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State counseled caution about sweeping statements on the Religious Right's demise. An AU report last year found that the nation's leading Religious Right groups remain well funded and organized at the grassroots.

    Huckabee's advance is further proof of this. It's also testament to the staying power of religion in American politics and a further sign that the Religious Right intends to play a pivotal role in this year's election.

    Against this dynamic, a rather public row broke out in conservative religious circles over which GOP candidate would best carry forth the movement's values. (See "Party Poopers," November 2007 Church & State.) Some high-profile evangelicals, such as TV preacher Pat Robertson's attorney Jay Sekulow and Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, backed Romney. Others, such as Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, gravitated toward former senator Fred Thompson. (Robertson, as quixotic as ever, threw his support behind Rudy Giuliani, who favors gay rights and reproductive choice.)

    Although the disagreement was at times sharp, staying out of the process was never considered an option. Early on, Huckabee began soliciting support from various Religious Right leaders. He was able to nail down mostly second-tier figures like Texas pastor Rick Scarborough, a would-be Jerry Falwell replacement.

    But Huckabee kept plugging away. He often spoke in evangelical churches, although this was rarely reported in the media. A turning point may have occurred in October, when Huckabee delivered a well-received speech before the Family Research Council's "Values Voter Summit" in Washington, D.C.

    All of the leading GOP candidates were politely received, but Huckabee was the crowd favorite. Deftly mixing social conservative red meat with fundamentalist sermonizing, he later topped a straw poll of conference attendees. His campaign took on an even more evangelical flair, with Huckabee at one point attributing his rise in the polls to divine intervention.

    In Iowa, Huckabee allies began organizing pastors on the ground and inviting them to special events. Home schooling guru Michael Farris endorsed him, as did Tim LaHaye, founder of the influential Council for National Policy and multi-millionaire author of the popular "Left Behind" series.

    In late December, Marc Ambinder reported on The Atlantic magazine's blog that "Huckabee is relying on an outsourced Get-Out-The-Caucusers effort and on the implied support of pastors -- under the radar."

    Scarborough, Farris and LaHaye were crucial to the effort. Ambinder reported that Scarborough sent out e-mails to Iowa pastors advertising a conference call featuring Farris and LaHaye. The event was described as "a critical conference call on why and how you can lead your congregation THIS SUNDAY to maximize precinct caucus turnout." It did not mention Huckabee by name, nor did it say that the three are working with him.

    As Ambinder noted, "[I]t's very easy to see that a mobilization of pastors and their congregants helps a single candidate."

    Other religious leaders are mobilizing pastors for Huckabee. In the January issue of Charisma magazine, publisher Stephen Strang pledged to hold a series of events to register members of the "Spirit-filled community" and get them to the polls, as well as raise money for the Arkansas hopeful.

    "To facilitate the movement, I've started a Web site ( with a blog and a call for leaders to organize," Strang wrote. "You can go to the site and find out about meetings we'll hold in various parts of the country." Strang says he is "particularly interested in having pastors and other ministry leaders attend."

    Strang's plunge into politics underscores Huckabee's crossover appeal. Charisma circulates mainly among Pentecostal Christians, whose worship is marked by "gifts of the Spirit" such as words of knowledge and speaking in tongues. As a Baptist, Huckabee does not engage in these activities, but that did not stop Strang from hailing him as the best candidate to inspire the creation of "a network that will help put godly men and women into office at all levels of government."

    Huckabee's rise has not pleased everyone. Some secular-oriented conservatives attacked the former Arkansas Baptist Convention president, saying his policies on taxation and the economy are too liberal. A few political bloggers took to referring to a "Huckabee Panic" among some secular conservatives.

    Writing in the National Review, conservative activist Rich Lowry argued that social conservatives have helped win over "conservative Democrats and lower-income voters who otherwise might not find the Republican limited-government message appealing."

    "That said," Lowry continued, "nominating a Southern Baptist pastor running on his religiosity would be rather overdoing it. Social conservatism has to be part of the Republican message, but it can't be the message in its entirety."

    Pat Toomey, president of the influential Club for Growth, blasted Huckabee as an economic populist in the mold of former North Carolina senator Edwards.

    Angry Huckabee supporters fired back, asserting that they are tired of being taken for granted by the GOP's corporate wing.

    Redeem the Vote founder Randy Brinson groused to the conservative Washington Times that the party establishment is "discounting the Huckabee platform and his populist message of taking back Washington from the corrupt Republican insiders that treat evangelicals as a commodity that can be traded or bartered."

    Huckabee fared less well in the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, taking third place behind John McCain and Romney with 11 percent of the vote. He was expected to do better in South Carolina's Jan. 19 Republican primary, where evangelical influence is also heavy, but ended up coming in second behind McCain.

    Huckabee rallied evangelical voters in other states. Speaking to an audience in Michigan last month, he called for amending the Constitution to prohibit abortion and same-sex marriage. "I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that's what we need to do -- is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards. . ."

    On the stump, Huckabee frequently employed Christian rhetoric. Speaking at a church called The Crossing in Windham, N.H., the Sunday before the vote, Huckabee told the crowd, "When we become believers, it's as if we have signed up to be part of God's Army, to be soldiers for Christ."

    Huckabee is not the only candidate playing the religion card. Less reported is the role religion has played in Democratic campaigns.

    For example, Obama -- who handily won the Iowa caucuses but lost narrowly to Clinton in New Hampshire -- has made no secret of his Christian faith on the stump. A member of the United Church of Christ, Obama often talks about his faith. His campaign even sponsored a gospel music tour in South Carolina.

    Some pundits see Obama's use of religion as crucial. After the Iowa vote, PBS's "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" correspondent Kim Lawton said it "played a huge role and one that I think is not widely acknowledged.

    "He had a very active effort to court people of faith, including some of those evangelical voters," she continued. "He held a series of faith forums across Iowa. A lot of times he didn't personally show up. His campaign had these meetings for people of faith, so it was under the radar partly because he wasn't there, but he brought people together to talk about social justice and moral issues."

    Lawton noted that Obama's campaign Web site even posted a phone number the week before the Iowa caucuses that people could call at 8:30 in the morning and pray for the campaign.

    Other candidates launched similar efforts. The Web site reported Jan. 2 that Clinton has worked to build a nationwide network of United Methodist pastors and lay leaders. Clinton, who is a lifelong member of that denomination, stresses issues that are of concern to the denomination's liberal wing, such as help for the poor, health care and women's rights.

    Noted Beliefnet, "Over the course of the last year, the Clinton campaign has compiled lists of hundreds of Methodist activists who...have been moved to support the New York Senator largely out of their common Methodist faith and values.

    Beliefnet also reported on efforts by McCain to court evangelicals. McCain is still battling some distrust in these quarters. In 2000, he attacked Jerry Falwell and Robertson as "agents of intolerance," and some activists are still smarting from that.

    In an effort to mend fences, McCain has recruited U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Brownback, who dropped out of the presidential race in October, is popular with the Religious Right.

    Reported Beliefnet's Dan Gilgoff Dec. 30, "In recent weeks, Brownback and advisors from his defunct campaign have counseled McCain and his aides about stepping up conservative Christian outreach and have arranged meetings between the campaign and evangelical Christian leaders."

    He added that Brownback is pushing McCain with Dobson and has urged the candidate to meet with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

    Is the insertion of Christianity into American politics appropriate in an increasingly diverse society that seeks to uphold the separation of church and state? The U.S. Constitution bans religious tests for public office, but that does not mean the voters can't apply a de facto one if they choose. So far, they seem to be demanding a certain level of religiosity from their candidates.

    Richard V. Pierard, professor emeritus of history at Gordon College, has studied the phenomenon of religion in politics for years. Pierard told Church & State that it's not uncommon for candidates to discuss religion in a general, non-sectarian way. He believes the increase of talk about Jesus this season has been sparked by Democrats trying to play catch-up with Republicans.

    Normally, said Pierard, candidates will make their rhetoric more non-sectarian once the primaries are over, as they cease trying to appeal to religious blocs and move toward the center. But he's not sure that pattern will hold this year.

    "If you get one of these really high-volume faith types on the Republican side, then the Democratic nominee will have to fight fire with fire and play the religion card as well," Pierard said. "That's unfortunate. In a pluralistic society, we can all have our faith and we don't have to apologize for it, but we must respect the views of others.

    "I'm not concerned with people saying what they believe," continued Pierard, himself an evangelical Christian. "It's when they try to use it for political purposes that bothers me. I hate that people are forced to wear their religion on their sleeve as a defensive measure."

    Polls also show there is a limit to God talk. Most Americans respect the religious pluralism of the nation and do not want government to impose theological views.

    Federal tax laws also come into play. Candidate outreach to religious groups is legal, and pastors may endorse candidates as private citizens -- but church-based political machines and attempts to use the resources of tax-exempt houses of worship to intervene in campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates are not. As the primary season morphs into the general election, Americans United will continue to monitor developments to make certain the law is being followed. "I think most Americans have had their fill of candidates trying to claim the endorsement of Jesus," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United and an ordained Christian minister. "To Christians, Jesus is too important to be relegated to the status of some candidate's running mate. To Christians and non-Christians alike, it's a distraction from discussion of the candidates' stands on the issues and their plans for the nation's future."

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