In US, faith is never far from politics
CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Reuters) - Three former presidents honour mega-preacher Billy Graham at the dedication of his library. Days later the three top Democratic contenders for the White House openly talk about faith in a televised forum.
Church and state may be separate entities in the United States. But faith and politics have become inseparable.
"This is basically a very religious nation, people have very intense feelings here about religion," said Carroll Doherty, associate director at the Pew Research Center. "It is unlikely that a nonreligious person would be elected president," he said.
This distinguishes the United States from most of the developed world.
Although figures are disputed, polls say that more than 40 percent of Americans attend religious services at least once a week, more than double the rates in western Europe, where the sacred and the secular seldom collide in the political sphere. "The strict separation of church and state in the U.S. actually fosters a broader role for religion in public life," said Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"It means religious institutions have long felt very free to publicly criticize the government and public norms," he said, pointing to the historic role of churches in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements.
The growth of the "Religious Right" -- a social conservative movement aligned with the Republican Party -- over the past three decades has also brought faith forcefully into the political realm.
It is part of a broader backlash to a perceived "permissiveness" in popular culture that has helped politicize U.S. religion.
How that translates into politics was highlighted in a survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, which found that being an atheist was a bigger negative for candidates running for president than smoking, being gay or being Muslim.
A revealing 63 percent of those surveyed said they would be "less likely" to support a presidential candidate who did not believe in God.
Never holding elected office before ranked second on the negative scales among the several traits that people were questioned about. Being gay, Muslim or a past drug user were next in line.
The most positive qualities were previous military service and being a Christian, with 48 percent and 39 percent of respondents respectively saying such traits would make them more likely to support a presidential candidate.
The religious left and right
The same survey found a "wide partisan" gap with 61 percent of Republicans saying they would more likely support a Christian candidate compared with 32 percent of Democrats.
But the Democratic number -- a third -- is hardly small.
This helps explain why the leading Democrats for their party's 2008 presidential nomination did their best on Monday to come across as pious on a televised forum about faith.
Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards were all trying to woo the "Religious Left" - faith-based organizations that see moral or Biblical imperatives to help the poor and care for the environment.
"Faith -- I mean, not only my faith, but prayer's played a huge role in my life. It does every single day; it's what gives me strength to keep going," Edwards said.
Clinton said her faith had pulled her through the fallout surrounding her husband's infidelity while he was president. Obama evoked Biblical passages to care for the needy.This was an invasion of territory normally held by the Republican Party.
Some on the Religious Left see this as a mistake. "I think the Christian left is the counter-balance to the Religious Right but we're making the same mistakes," said Jan G. Linn, a pastor and author of the book "Big Christianity: What's Right With The Religious Left."
"The Democrats are going to use us just as the Republicans have used the Religious Right," he told Reuters by telephone from his Minnesota base.
Mistake or not, Democrats clearly see a Christian base which they hope to energize -- just as the Republicans have appealed to their evangelical base through strident opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Faith has never been far below the surface of political power in America -- a fact driven home last week when ex-presidents George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all appeared on a podium with the aging Billy Graham.
At a dedication to a library honouring America's most famous evangelist, the former presidents all spoke warmly about Graham's impact on their spiritual lives. Graham offered spiritual guidance to many American presidents but his distinctly apolitical approach also evokes another era, when faith and politics did not publicly mix to the extent they do today.