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Politics and Religion: God in the White House

Posted by Bill Prosecky on September 11, 2008

I have to admit, when I first walked into Room 100A of the Reynolds Journalism Institute this morning, I had no idea what to expect.  I knew that the “title” of the seminar was “God in the White House”, but I was not sure where that discussion was going to go.  Weren’t God and presidential politics supposed to be completely independent subjects?  Because it is such a divisive issue, shouldn’t religion be kept out of important political decisions?  These were all questions that I was hoping to have answered.

The first guest to speak at the event (of course, after Debra Mason, the host, introduced the thing) was a man named Dan Gilgoff, the Politics Editor for beliefnet.com, a site that rates the presidential candidates on their overall effectiveness in dealing with religion as a political issue.  One of the first points Gilgoff brought up was one that really got my attention and gave me a firm understanding of where the rest of the seminar was going to go.  He pointed out that while most political candidates (and people, in general) believe that religion should be solely a personal issue, one must also recognize the fact that when a candidate for office, especially a presidential candidate, declares him or herself to be a member of a particular religion, this has an effect on the way certain citizens may cast their vote.  Gilgoff pointed out that one of the main reasons George W. Bush lost the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election was because over 4 million white Evangelicals did not turn out to vote (in pre-election polls, Bush had won this vote handily).  Karl Rove, a former Bush adviser, was really the first one to highlight this discrepancy in the amount of support for Bush and the voter turnout.  The Bush campaign came to the conclusion that they had not done enough to reach out to certain religious groups, especially Evangelicals.  While most Evangelicals did support Bush, for most of them, he had not convinced them enough to make them turn out to vote.

From the 2000 election on, religion has become one of the focal points of political campaigns.  It should not be assumed that religion was not a major issue beforehand, but that Bush’s loss of the Evangelical vote in 2000 was the main cause for the establishment of religious outreach groups as vital parts of campaign teams.  Mr. Gilgoff also highlighted the fact that in 2004, while Bush’s campaign put together a marvelously organized and efficient religious outreach program, John Kerry had failed to do so.  Kerry preferred the “old-time” (i.e. pre-2000) approach of avoiding journalists who asked him for his take on religion.  He chose to keep religion a personal issue, and, while this may seem to have been a noble choice on paper, it was one of the key reasons why he lost the 2004 presidential election.  Gilgoff pointed out detail that I found very interesting, and that was that even though John Kerry was himself a Catholic, in the 2004 election, he lost the Catholic vote.  One only has to look at this piece of information to begin to understand the need for campaign teams to establish well-organized religious outreach groups.

Religion, however, is not all good when it comes to politics, as Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times pointed out.  Falsani, who spoke after Gilgoff, pointed out the fact that religion often gets twisted and used against politicians.  The point must be made that sometimes religion can go too far when it comes to political campaigns.  In 2004, Falsani interviewed Barack Obama, who was then not even a member of the US Senate yet, and not nearly as well known as he is now.  The interview is still posted online on Falsani’s blog site (falsani.blogspot.com), and she says that she still receives frequent comments and questions from viewers about Obama’s true faith.  While Obama is, in fact, a born-again Christian, many people still e-mail Falsani with questions as to whether or not he is a Muslim, or about his ties to such controversial ministers as Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pfleger.  While many of the comments Falsani received were, as she claimed, ridiculous and unfounded, the fact that people actually still care about an interview Obama did in 2004 just goes to show the importance of religion in the political world.  While it is important for campaigns to have religious outreach programs, when a candidate’s faith becomes a mainstream news headline, then the issue has been taken too far.

As I said before, when I came into the seminar I had no idea what it was going to be like or what kinds of subjects were going to be discussed.  Before I listened to Mr. Gilgoff and Ms. Falsani, I had never thought about how a candidate’s faith affected voters.  How do the minds of the voters change when a candidate declares that he is a Catholic, or a born-again Christian, or a Muslim?  How will this affect the votes he receives?  These were questions that I, and, I presume, many people have not really thought about when we discuss presidential candidates.  Religion is a very sensitive issue to a lot of people in this country, and I now believe that it is because of its sensitive nature that it must be handled effectively by all political candidates who would like to have any hope of winning elections.

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