Religion's sway felt in elections past, present

Obama, McCain only latest to navigate bumpy terrain

June 07, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun staff

When it became known in late 1976 that the Plains Baptist Church had a 12-year-old policy on its books that excluded "blacks and other civil rights agitators" from worshiping there, its most prominent member - soon-to-be-president Jimmy Carter - rejected calls that he resign from the parish.

"I can't resign as an American citizen because there's still discrimination," he said at the time. "And I don't intend to resign from my own church because there's discrimination."

Thirty-two years later, a string of incidents involving presidential contenders, pastors and churches illustrates how tricky the navigation of religious terrain continues to be for political candidates.

Sen. Barack Obama resigned his longtime membership with the Trinity United Church of Christ after public outrage over incendiary statements by its former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and a visiting Catholic priest, the Rev. Michael Pfleger.

Sen. John McCain rejected the endorsements of two prominent evangelical ministers, the Rev. John C. Hagee and the Rev. Rod Parsley, after they were likewise assailed for inflammatory comments.

In some ways, little has changed. Ministers - sometimes controversial ones - have been involved in politics since the founding of the Republic.

If anything, "pastors are a lot more moderate than they used to be," said Ted G. Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the co-editor of the journal Politics and Religion.

"You used to hear in evangelical Protestant churches that the Pope is the Antichrist or the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon," Jelen said.

Shake up status quo

That said, many contemporary politicians have attended churches led by pastors who occasionally articulate controversial views, said Sally Steenland, senior policy adviser to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Indeed, she pointed out, the role of the pastor is to be prophetic and to stand up to the status quo.

But, until now, the public had little sense of exactly what was brewing behind church doors, because video cameras were not so prevalent and sermons didn't show up on YouTube every Sunday, Steenland said.

The 21st century's relentless 24-hour news cycle, cable and the Internet have changed all that.

"Religion was more sheltered in the private realm," she said. "All these devices and technologies mean that there is no longer any zone of privacy at all."

In a society where presidents' underwear preference is common knowledge, it's inevitable that churches and their leaders would face a loss of privacy, but some see such invasions as unfair and undesirable.

"If you go to that person for spiritual advice, that doesn't mean that their politics matches yours any more than if you go to a doctor for medical advice that you'd expect him to be politically savvy," said Clyde Wilcox, a government professor at Georgetown University who has written extensively about religion and politics. "There's a case to be made for pulling back a little."

Up for grabs

The shifting loyalties of religious voters, whose support at the polls this fall is perceived as up for grabs, is also a factor in the election-year minister controversies, some say.

"This is not a new phenomenon by any means," said John C. Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "But I think the principle reason these incidents are occurring is because of appeals to religious voters and because endorsements of candidates by religious leaders are much more public in this campaign."

Broader issues

In contrast with the elections in 2000 and 2004, both Democratic and Republican candidates are pointedly vying for religious voters.

Several voter groups, including Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians, could go either way, Green said.

For example, some evangelicals, particularly younger ones, are less focused on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and more interested in broader issues such as global warming and poverty, said Clyde Wilcox, a government professor at Georgetown University who has written extensively on religion and politics.

To some, it seems that Republicans have benefited more from the ministerial imbroglios in recent elections, and those associated with controversial religious figures or institutions have somehow managed to avoid the heat Obama has faced.

When George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University in 2000 - a place where interracial dating was prohibited and anti-Catholic rhetoric was rampant - he garnered headlines briefly, but then the story faded.

Similarly, multimedia evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who endorsed Bush, shared a history of making extreme - some would say outrageous - statements, but that didn't appear to hurt Bush in the long run.

It is unclear why, but some observers have suggested that Democrats failed to seize the opportunity and pounce.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.