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You've got to have faith: For U.S. presidential hopefuls, God is their co-pilot 0

Bryn Weese, Senior Washington Correspondent
U.S. Republican presidential candidates (L to R) Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich stand for the National Anthem before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona on February 22, 2012. (REUTERS/Laura Segall)

U.S. Republican presidential candidates (L to R) Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich stand for the National Anthem before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona on February 22, 2012. (REUTERS/Laura Segall)

A Mormon, two Catholics, an evangelical and a Protestant.

No, this isn't the start of a joke. It's the lineup of U.S. presidential candidates and their religious faith is taking centre stage as the 2012 election heats up.

GOP frontrunner Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, recently accused President Barack Obama -- a latecomer to the Christian fold having joined a church in his 20s -- of having a "phony theology ... not based on the Bible."

Newt Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism in 2009 after cheating on his first two wives and divorcing them, now makes "the Creator" a staple on the stump.

And religion is a big part of Mitt Romney's campaign, too, if only as the elephant in the room. Romney, a Mormon, has struggled to talk about his faith since so many Americans -- one-in-four -- have a negative view of his 'Church of Latter Day Saints,' which practiced polygamy until the late 1800s.

But Republicans of all faiths assailed the Obama administration this month for a controversial plan to force religious institutions' health insurance to cover contraceptives, even if it contradicts that church's teachings.

Obama retreated from the plan, but his rivals continue to beat the "war on religion" drum, evidence they say of his "secular agenda."

"When you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what's left is the French Revolution," Santorum warned at a rally in Texas earlier this month. "What's left in France became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we're a long way from that, but if we follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road."

It is difficult to imagine a similar narrative playing out in Canada. While Stephen Harper is an evangelical, and some critics have warned darkly of a secret "religious agenda," Harper has kept his religious beliefs to himself and kept God out of politics.

And former preacher and Conservative minister Stockwell Day was mocked by secularists as leader of the Canadian Alliance Party for believing in creationism, a conviction shared by a full 40% of Americans.

"The United States is the most religious of the advanced industrial societies. In some ways, it's more like Brazil or India than it is like Europe or Canada," said Professor John Green, an expert in religion and politics at the University of Akron, Ohio.

"In most of the developed world, modern societies are accompanied by a high degree of secularization. That doesn't mean that religion completely vanishes, but it takes a secondary role in society."

Indeed, religion is sewn into the very fabric of the United States, a result of the Constitution that protects religious freedom. There's also America's history of being a haven for people fleeing religious persecution elsewhere.

According to recent polls by PEW Forum, 56% of Americans say religion is "very important" in their lives, and 39% attend church weekly. Seven in ten say they believe in God "with absolute certainty."

For Green, the religious battles playing out in the Republican primary are "par for the course," given the large voting block of believers.

"Once you start seeing a competitive election, then candidates and parties and special interest groups try to mobilize allies in the faith communities." In practical terms, he said, playing the religion card is, "a very good way to get votes."

Evangelical and born-again Christian voters, a powerful force behind President George W. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004, are again playing a dominant role in the Republican primary. Their support for Santorum, a staunch pro-lifer and opponent of same-sex marriage who has likened homosexuality to bestiality and polygamy, has buoyed his shoestring campaign and helped vault him to the front of the Republican field.

Evangelicals, who make up about 25% of Americans, are also skeptical of Mormons with a PEW poll finding one-in-three unlikely to vote for one.

What remains to be seen is where religious voters will park themselves in November's general election.

In 2008, Obama garnered a majority of Catholic voters (56%) and even 24% of the evangelical vote.

bryn.weese@sunmedia.ca