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Is America Headed Toward a Faith-Based Election?

A theology professor talks about the role of religion on the campaign trail


Nancy Ammerman, who specializes in the sociology of religion, says the mix of religion and presidential politics is here to stay. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee captured the Iowa caucuses early this month. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, has been forced to publicly defend his religion. Pundits compare Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s speeches to soulful church sermons. All along the 2008 campaign trail, religion is much in the news, but is that fascination with the religion of political candidates a new thing? And what does it mean for the rest of the campaign?

To find out, BU Today spoke with Nancy Ammerman, a School of Theology professor, who has spent much of the last decade studying American religious congregations. Ammerman has written extensively on conservative religious movements, including Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World, a study of an independent Baptist church in New England, and Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, which received the 1992 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

BU Today: What does Mike Huckabee’s win in Iowa say about the impact of religion in today’s presidential politics?
In some ways, it says that religion is more important, that someone who is overtly religious can be a viable candidate. In other ways, it says that religion is less important, or simply part of the overall package. I think what we see in a number of the candidates is that their religious identities are salient. People are paying attention and asking about those religious questions, but it’s not the single defining characteristic for most of these candidates.

Is there a danger that the line between church and state is becoming blurred?
There’s an enormous misunderstanding in much of American society about what the separation of church and state means. Many people have taken it to mean the separation of religion and politics — that religion is one of those things, like sex, that you’re not supposed to talk about in public. That’s a cultural norm, not a constitutional requirement. Our constitution prevents us from using any force of law to take religious tests or give religious institutions any kind of privilege. We can’t say to Mitt Romney, “Because you’re a Mormon, you’re not qualified to be president.” We can’t say to Mike Huckabee, “Because you’re a southern Baptist, you’re not qualified to be president,” or that unless you belong to an officially recognized religious group you can’t participate.

The other thing our constitution says is that our government is not permitted to make any law that infringes on a person’s free exercise of religion. I think most people would agree that free exercise includes being able to talk about how one’s religious beliefs impact how one thinks about the common good.

In Iowa, Huckabee was promoting his religion, while Romney was defending his. Does this mean the debate is not about faith, but about brands?
It’s at least in part about that. People identify with candidates on a whole bunch of different levels. It’s not all about what we think about their policy on health care. It’s about finding somebody that we see as like us, or at least enough like us that we trust them. And religion is part of how many Americans, not all, make that judgment. Catholics see another Catholic as someone who is “like me.” Evangelicals see another Evangelical as like them. And for Mitt Romney, there are not enough Mormons out there to counterbalance that. Mormons have been seen as a group enough different from the American mainstream for people to simply raise questions and say, “Isn’t this kind of weird?”

How did religion become such a prominent feature of today’s political landscape?
You really have to go back 30 years. Up until Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, there had been a pretty extensive period in American politics where religion had faded into the woodwork. Many conservative Protestants were turned off by the political scene. The Catholic issue had died down, and Catholics had emerged into the American mainstream. So religion really hadn’t been a prominent factor.

Then with Jimmy Carter in 1976 — and the prominence of his story as a born-again person — you get the rise of the Evangelical. In an ironic way, Carter helps mobilize the Moral Majority. On one hand, he’s a very visible Evangelical. But on the other, he doesn’t support many of the positions that these more conservative folks wanted. So they start to mobilize in the late ’70s, and we’ve really seen the maturation and institutionalization of the movement during the George W. Bush administration. It’s become part of American politics, and it’s not going away. Jerry Falwell is dead, but the movement is not. Bush is really the first person that they’ve tried to put in office who has accomplished much of anything on the right wing agenda. Even though in many ways he’s not their perfect candidate, he’s done so much in terms of using executive orders and appointments and so forth to put Christian Right–style people and rules in place. He really represents a kind of an accomplishment for the movement.

Has September 11 played any part in the rise of religious beliefs in the public sphere?
We saw a bump in church attendance for a few Sundays after September 11. That has not persisted. I don’t think there’s much in the way of evidence that people are personally more religious or more attached to religious organizations post-9/11. What it may have done is make us more aware of the degree to which we cannot ignore religion in our world.

How do you see the role of religion changing once the nominees enter the general election campaign?
That really depends on what the particular mix of nominees is. If Mike Huckabee were the Republican nominee, I think one of the things that would happen would be that the more secular wing of the Democratic party would probably play the anti-Evangelical, anti-mixing-church-and-state card very hard. They would try to make his religious faith an issue, to his detriment. And I think that would probably backfire. There are just too many people out there — and they may not like Huckabee’s Evangelicalism — who would not like having someone tell them that it’s not OK to be a believer. The secular part of the Democratic Party represents a fairly small proportion of the population.

Is faith the kind of issue whose ownership is going to swing between Republicans and Democrats?
One of the things that has been very interesting, especially from 2004, is that the Democrats have been getting religion. The top three candidates can all talk pretty authentically about their own faith and involvement with a religious tradition. You have a couple of Methodists, a Congregationalist. Barack Obama really can speak from within about broad black church tradition that hits a very resonant note in the African-American community. Just listening to his Iowa victory speech, I was thinking, he’s doing call and response.

I think we really are on the cusp of a new generation of a sorting out of where religion and politics will land. Obama is really an interesting new-generation person in that regard. He’s a very faith-full person, but also very liberal as a Democrat. Huckabee is a very faith-full person, but he doesn’t toe the conservative line by any means. Both these candidates represent a kind of mixing-up of the issues. The positions of earlier candidates were much more clear: “Here are the Republicans and here are the issues, and all of the conservative Christians are on that side.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


One Comment on Is America Headed Toward a Faith-Based Election?

  • trish on 01.17.2008 at 9:25 am

    This was a fair article regarding religion and politics. The fairness of it was a bit of a surprise coming from a College Campus. I enjoyed reading it.

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