Rick Perry dived right in. The Texas governor, now a Republican presidential candidate, held a prayer rally for tens of thousands, read from the Bible, invoked Christ and broadcast the whole event on the Web. There was no symbolic nod to other American faiths, no rabbi or Roman Catholic priest among the evangelical speakers. It was a rare, full-on embrace of one religious tradition in the glare of a presidential contest.
Looks like another raucous season for religion and American politics.
And yet, there was a time when all of this was simpler. Protestants were the majority, and candidates could show their piety just by attending church.
Now, politicians are navigating a landscape in which rifts over faith and policy have become chasms. An outlook that appeals to one group enrages another. Campaigns are desperate to find language generic enough for a broad constituency that also conveys an unshakable faith.
There is no avoiding the minefield, especially with early primaries in Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelical voters are key. Nationally, more than 70 percent of U.S. Republicans and more than half of U.S. Democrats say it’s somewhat or very important that a presidential candidate have very strong religious beliefs, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy could blunt Protestant fears about his Catholicism by calling his religion private. After four decades of so-called culture wars and activism and extremism from the Christian right wing, the Kennedy strategy no longer works. Politicians are evaluated not only by what church they attend, but also by what their congregation teaches and what their pastor says on Sundays.
Republican Michele Bachmann has been asked to explain a statement she made in the context of her 2006 Minnesota congressional campaign — that she submits to the authority of her husband. The teaching is based on Ephesians 5:21-23 and other Bible verses. Evangelicals say the doctrine is about sacrificial love, the way Christ sacrificed himself for the church. A wife should put her husband’s needs first and the husband should serve his wife, although some Christian conservatives view the teaching as a license to control their wives.
In a Republican debate before the Iowa straw poll, Bachmann was asked by a conservative newspaper columnist to explain whether, as president, she would submit to her husband’s authority. The audience booed the question. Bachmann was tight-lipped as she listened, then thanked the questioner and said that to her, submission means that she and her husband respect each other.
For the 2012 race, analysts predict that Mitt Romney will eventually have to talk about how his Mormon faith would influence the way he governs. Jon Huntsman, a rival for the Republican presidential nomination, is perhaps the first presidential candidate claiming the “spiritual, not religious” mantle. He was raised Mormon but said he is not very active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Huntsman’s wife, Mary Kaye, who was raised Episcopalian, told Vogue magazine, “We are a family that combines two, and it works for us.” Religion scholars have noted the growing popularity of the “spiritual, not religious” approach to faith, so Huntsman’s outlook would resonate with many Americans, although people who hold this view are hardly an organized political group.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to persuade Obama to return to the religious language he used in the 2008 race as one way to clarify his values. Surveys have found that around 40 percent of voters say they don’t know his religion.
“The voting public no longer believes, as they did as late as the 1950s, that religion was about what you thought and not what you did,” said Kathleen Flake, who specializes in American religious history at Vanderbilt University.
“For the first time, we’re not only interested in whether someone is religious, which is essentially a question of, ‘Do you have a morality that the voter can identify with?’” Flake said. “It appears that there’s a significant portion of the electorate that’s interested in what the particular theology of the candidate is. Do they believe in Jesus? If so, what kind of Jesus do you believe in?”