When it comes to the desired degree of religiosity in presidential candidates, most voters are like Goldilocks tasting bowls of porridge: Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Of course, what is “just right” in one political cycle may not be in another. Current conventional wisdom holds that many voters want a heavy dose of God-talk. Following the electoral successes of George W. Bush, candidates feel compelled to reassure (if Republican) or reach out to (if Democrat) the so-called “values voter” with professions of faith — however genuine or contrived.
So prevalent is the religion factor on the campaign trail these days that Beliefnet.com and Time magazine have developed the cheeky “God-o-Meter” to help voters sort out who is saying what about religion and why.
From Barack Obama’s “faith tour” of Iowa (needle up) to Fred Thompson’s admission that he doesn’t attend church regularly (needle down), the God-o-Meter tracks the candidates’ often surreal scramble to get God right.
But in the ever-shifting world of presidential politics, conventional wisdom about the need to appear deeply religious may be outdated. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, the two frontrunners, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani, are the candidates viewed as least religious by voters. Both are described as “somewhat religious” by a majority of people.
If Clinton and Giuliani are ultimately the nominees, it may turn out that “somewhat religious” is just the right temperature for a nation suffering from culture-war fatigue. But other factors may intervene to turn the religious heat back up.
The prospect of socially liberal Giuliani atop the Republican ticket has already stirred talk among some conservative Christian leaders of a third-party candidate. That would surely keep the religious debate on a high boil.
Ironically, the candidate viewed by voters as the most religious, Mitt Romney, is also the candidate with the biggest religion problem because of his Mormon faith. Forty-six percent see Romney as “very religious” (compared, for example, to the 19% who view John McCain that way). But a fourth of Republican voters say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon. Among white Republican evangelicals, that number rises to 36%.
Given the persistence of the religious issue, Romney may have no choice but to give the long-anticipated “Mormon speech” decrying religious tests for office and clarifying the relationship of faith and politics in his life. Confronting prejudice head-on worked for John Kennedy on the Catholic question in 1960, but whether it will work for Romney in 2008 remains to be seen.
McCain, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to mind religious tests — as long as his religion passes. In a Beliefnet interview, he said the Constitution establishes the United States as a Christian nation (it doesn’t). When asked about whether or not he would support a Muslim American running for president, McCain said he personally would prefer someone who shared his faith because the country was founded on Christian principles.
After the interview, McCain amended the answer, saying he could vote for a Muslim if he or she “was the candidate best able to lead the country and defend our political values.”
Lagging in the polls, one-time frontrunner McCain may be using “Christian nation” language as a Hail Mary pass to win over social conservatives — who are still searching for the Christian-right candidate. But it might hurt him with voters who read the Constitution as a religious-freedom charter for a nation with no established faith.
As refreshing as it might be to have a presidential campaign free of arguments over which candidate gets God right, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Official religious tests are unconstitutional, but unofficial religious tests persist.
It doesn’t violate the First Amendment, of course, for presidential candidates to speak about their faith. But religion can be used to unite or divide, include or exclude, heal or incite. That’s why any God-talk in politics should be less about winning votes and more about what serves the common good.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.