For just a brief moment, I felt like the president of the United States giving a press conference. After all, as I looked out at the crowd I was preparing to address, there in the first row sat Helen Thomas! Helen is the pioneering woman journalist who worked for several decades for United Press International, including many as its chief White House correspondent. She was an institution at presidential press conferences, often being the first reporter to lob a question at chief executives ranging from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.
But this was no White House event. In reality, I was taking part in a presentation at St. John's Episcopal Church, a Washington, D.C., house of worship close to Lafayette Square that has been dubbed "the Church of the Presidents." Thomas is an attendee and wanted to hear my talk about religion in the presidential campaign.
The current campaign is so religion-saturated it could be the basis for an entire lecture series. It knows no boundaries of party, gender or race. We have been treated this year to stories revealing that former senator Fred Thompson attends church a little more frequently when he is at his home in Tennessee than when he is living at his home in the Washington suburbs. (Washington-area preachers must not be up to snuff.) Network correspondents have inquired into what candidates pray for and asked them to state their biggest sin and name a favorite Bible verse.
Thanks to the inventive CNN/You Tube debates, Republicans were treated to a videotaped question where a guy held up a Bible and asked if they believed every word in it. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani does not believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a big fish, and even Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee said people shouldn't literally pluck an eye out when it offended them.
And then there's the weekly ritual of candidates stomping into houses of worship. Some of them even speak from pulpits. It is not always a risk to the tax exemption of a religious institution to have a candidate there, but does anybody seriously believe these folks would just have dropped in for some sermonizing if they weren't on the campaign trail? (Since Huckabee has no job, he might.)
Sometimes the candidates reel off a clever line. Sen. Barack Obama said a few months back that sometimes he goes to church just to sit in the pew and listen. Giuliani, while speaking at a Florida church, said he was there to ask for prayers, not votes, because a house of worship isn't the place to seek the latter.