Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion-Politics Mix Proves Perilous

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion-Politics Mix Proves Perilous

Article excerpt

M'itt Romney and his Mormon faith. Mike Huckabee and his ."Christian leader" ads. John McCain and John Hagee. Hillary Clinton and her "prayer warriors." Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. The 2008 election has featured an extraordinary emphasis on religion.

"There's been more religious ferment in this election than any since 1960," said Ralph Reed, the GOP strategist who helped build the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, "and I don't expect that to come to an end."

But the past couple of months have demonstrated--to a degree not seen in previous elections--that the intersection of religion and politics can be fraught with peril for pastors and politicians.

Illinois Democrat Obama resigned from Trinity United Church of Christ, the Chicago congregation he's called home for 20 years, after fiery, racially tinged sermons by the now-retired Jeremiah Wright and a visiting white Catholic priest, Michael Pfleger.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney only reluctantly described his Mormon beliefs in a speech during his primary campaign, knowing that many Christians regard the church as a non-Christian sect. Arizona senator McCain, also uncomfortable on religious topics, tried early on to explain why he mainly attends a Baptist church but remains an Episcopalian.

Later, McCain, as the presumed Republican nominee, was forced to reject the endorsements of prominent Christian pastors Hagee of San Antonio and Rod Parsley of Columbus, Ohio, because of their comments about Jews and Muslims.

In an age of unprecedented Internet scrutiny--with blogs, videos and online access to archived sermons--pastors and politicians are facing a new era in American elections in which a pastoral endorsement can quickly go from a blessing to a curse.

And it's not just the politicians who are feeling the heat.

"I suspect if you were in my shoes it seems plausible at least that you wouldn't want your church experience to be a political circus," Obama told reporters May 31 just after he and his wife pulled their membership at Trinity. "I think most American people will understand that and wouldn't want to subject their church to that either."

Both sides have been burned by the extraordinary scrutiny in this year's election. It was too much for Hagee, who withdrew his endorsement of McCain and vowed to stay on the sidelines for the rest of the campaign. Parsley, meanwhile, decried the way statements by religious leaders were "being transformed into political weapons by the politically vicious and misguided. …

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