Arizona Sen. John McCain has essentially sealed the GOP nomination, but the Democratic contest between Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois continues, and faith could play a role in who occupies the White House come November.
A Zogby poll conducted Jan. 25 to 27 of 1,008 likely voters found that 54 percent of those questioned want a president who mirrors biblical ideals of leadership, such as truthfulness, integrity and belief in God.
In 2004, a Fox survey conducted on the eve of the presidential election found the most important issues among 2004 voters were moral values (25 percent), compared with the Iraq War (22 percent), terrorism (17 percent) and the economy (16 percent).
In 2008, 38 percent of Americans said social and moral issues will sway their decision on which candidate to vote for, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll. Meanwhile 78 percent of Americans in the poll said domestic issues such as the economy, health care and the environment will sway their decisions.
Claudia Camp, a religion professor, said the candidates in both parties appear to be working from a moral or religious foundation to seem more cordial and open to spiritual issues.
Michael Dodson, a political science professor, said he feels the presidential candidates try to reassure the evangelical right that they are authentically Christian – they talk the talk and walk the walk – to appeal to a significant element represented by each party.
But there are many ways to discuss the religiosity of candidates, said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor.
“Their religions, church affiliations, church attendance patterns and theologies are all different, but to say some are more religious than others would be a misnomer,” Riddlesperger said of the presidential candidates.
There is no question that the rhetoric of Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has made Obama’s religion an issue for the moment, Riddlesperger said.
Wright said during a sermon in 2003 that blacks should not sing “God Bless America” but “God damn America.” Additionally, the Sunday after Sept. 11 he said the U.S. had brought on al Qaida’s attacks because of its own terrorism, raising the question of whether his statements reflect Obama’s beliefs.
In a campaign appearance in March, Obama said he doesn’t think his church is actually controversial.
Riddlesperger said sometimes these controversies spike immediately and have minimal long-term impact.
“My guess is that this will not have long-term effects as long as nothing else happens; however, issues such as this can take on a life of their own and seemingly never disappear,” Riddlesperger said.
Obama told Religion and Ethics Newsweekly he believed and still believes in the power of the black religious tradition to spur social change.
“I understand the biblical call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and to challenge powers and principalities for freedom and the rights of man,” he said.
Like Obama, each of the remaining candidates considers himself or herself religious and has addressed the issue of religion and moral issues while campaigning.
Clinton has said she has had a strong faith from an early age.
“My faith has sustained me, it has informed me, it has saved me, it has chided me, it has challenged me and I don’t know who I would be or where I would be had I not been given this gift,” Clinton told the Christian Broadcast Network in February.
McCain has said America was founded primarily on Christian principles and that he would prefer a president who shares that faith.
“That is my religious faith, and it is the faith I want my party to serve, and the faith I hold in my country,” McCain told CNN in an interview in February. “It is the faith that we are all equal and endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the faith I would die to defend.”
Dodson said appearing to be authentically Christian will become more meaningful for McCain’s campaign, since Mike Huckabee, the ex-Baptist pastor, and Mitt Romney, the first Mormon candidate, are no longer in the race.
Adam Schiffer, an assistant political science professor, said whatever candidates say about their religion, pollsters don’t know what will and will not sway votes.
“For example, if a Republican is strongly pro-life, strongly in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy and approves of the Iraq War, there’s no way we can distinguish which of those issues is most important for him or her,” Schiffer said.
Riddlesperger said the economy is almost always the most important issue because politicians benefit from a good economy and are hurt by the perception of a bad one.
“It is other issues like religion and health care that historically take a back seat to the economy,” Riddlesperger said.
Nonetheless, candidates are still addressing moral issues.
“Justice for the poor, hospitality to the stranger, immigration, peace in the world, troop reduction, are some of the moral issues featured in the Bible and Quran that the candidates are addressing,” said Jack Hill, associate professor of religion.
Dodson said only religious right voters equate morality with being religious and would vote for a candidate first and foremost on the perception that he or she was religious.
Hill said candidates’ personal moral codes can influence their political positions and voters look for a candidate whose framework is closer to theirs.
Similarly, Schiffer said he believes choosing a candidate has nothing to do with religious preference, but instead with a person’s moral beliefs.
“Whether it’s raising some people’s taxes while lowering others’, giving economic incentives while discouraging others, or raising inflation, which can cause unemployment, the policies are all moral in nature, and are being addressed by each candidate in this election,” Schiffer said.