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A hot issue on the campaign trail: theology

By Rachel Zoll

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 3 2011 1:16 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Aug. 6, 2011, file photo Texas Gov. Rick Perry, right, joined on stage by Pastor C.L. Jackson, bows his head in prayer at The Response, a call to prayer for a nation in crisis in Houston. During the prayer rally for thousands Perry read from the Bible, invoked Christ, and broadcast the whole event on the Web, without so much as a symbolic nod to other American faiths. It was a rare, full-on embrace of one religious tradition in the glare of a presidential contest.

David J. Phillip, File, Associated Press

Rick Perry dived right in. The Texas governor, now a Republican presidential candidate, held a prayer rally for tens of thousands, read from the Bible, invoked Christ and broadcast the whole event on the Web. There was no symbolic nod to other American faiths, no rabbi or Roman Catholic priest among the evangelical speakers. It was a rare, full-on embrace of one religious tradition in the glare of a presidential contest.

Looks like another raucous season for religion and politics.

And yet, there was a time when all of this was simpler. Protestants were the majority, and candidates could show their piety just by attending church.

Now, politicians are navigating a landscape in which rifts over faith and policy have become chasms. An outlook that appeals to one group enrages another. Campaigns are desperate to find language generic enough for a broad constituency that also conveys an unshakable faith.

There is no avoiding the minefield, especially with early primaries in Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelical voters are key. Nationally, more than 70 percent of Republicans and more than half of Democrats say it's somewhat or very important that a presidential candidate have very strong religious beliefs, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy could blunt Protestant fears about his Catholicism by calling his religion private. After four decades of culture wars and Christian right activism, the Kennedy strategy no longer works. Politicians are evaluated not only by what church they attend, but also by what their congregation teaches and what their pastor says on Sundays.

"Candidates often have to make tough choices about their religion — whether to talk about it, what to say about it and even what to do about it — such as leaving a church," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, Ohio. "These tensions are quite strong among Republicans as the presidential nomination contest heats up, partly because of religious disagreements among key constituencies, but partly because of differences in issue priorities — economic vs. social issues."

The current presidential campaign began with two cautionary tales fresh in the minds of political strategists:

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama broke ties with his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after videos surfaced of Wright sermonizing that U.S. foreign policy played a role in the 9/11 attacks. "America's chickens are coming home to roost," Wright said. Obama was so close with Wright that the Democrat took the title of his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," from one of the pastor's sermons.

Republican Mitt Romney was the other example. The former Massachusetts governor had struggled to address concerns about being Mormon despite a major faith-and-values speech in 2007 in Texas.

He quoted the New Testament and declared his belief in Jesus. (Many Christian denominations don't consider Mormons to be Christian.) He commended the deep faith of the Founding Fathers and decried secularism. And like Kennedy, he promised that "no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." Yet, polls continued to show an unwillingness to vote for a Mormon, especially among white evangelicals, who form a large segment of the GOP.

"That speech probably drew more attention to his Mormonism than it was worth," said Ed Kilgore, a former policy director at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who oversaw programs that urged Democrats to talk about the values behind their policies. "It raised a lot of questions and didn't really resolve them."

Romney is once again seeking the GOP presidential nomination. He has barely discussed his religion so far.

Politicians like to quip that they're not running for theologian in chief. Still, they face increasingly complex questions on doctrine — prompted in many cases by their own attempts at highlighting their faith.

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