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USA: Mix of politics, religion appears a recipe for disaster

by Peter S. Canellos (in Boston Globe)

Saturday 7 June 2008

Published in: Boston Globe, June 3, 2008

WASHINGTON - The 2008 primary election campaign began with candidates scrambling to embrace religious leaders, and it’s ending with candidates rushing to repudiate them. An election cycle that was supposed to usher in the marriage of religion and politics may be hastening its divorce.

From the evangelical ministers who questioned the fitness of a Mormon to be president, to the religious-right activists who denounced John McCain as godless, to the McCain-backing radio preacher who said Hitler was fulfilling God’s will, to Barack Obama’s longtime minister who blamed the United States for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to Obama’s Catholic adviser who last week mocked Hillary Clinton, the clergy haven’t just made a bad show of it: They’ve behaved like small-minded bigots.

These preachers have managed the amazing feat of making all the politicians involved in the campaign seem, by comparison, more tolerant, more reasonable, and less self-interested.

It hasn’t been all clergy, of course. The vast majority of religious leaders have sensibly stayed out of politics - or, rather, above politics, where spiritual leaders function best. But encouraged by candidates and perhaps envious of the religious right’s influence on the Bush administration, many religious figures have sought to weigh in on the presidential election this year.

What they’ve discovered is that once they turn their pulpits into lecterns, they lose the deference that attaches to men and women of God. The rain of criticism has caught many by surprise, more accustomed as they are to nods and amens.

Their expectations may have been influenced by the kid-gloves treatment of the religious right in past campaigns.

The genius of Karl Rove and other Republican strategists was to approach evangelical Christians like a discriminated-against minority, courting them the way the Democrats appealed to blacks and Hispanics.

The idea was to argue that Democrats were fundamentally hostile to religious Christians, and thus put the onus on the opposition to show them appropriate respect and deference. So for several election cycles both parties bent over backwards to be respectful of evangelicals.

This year, however, Democrats sought to do more than just show respect for people who identify strongly with religion - they wanted to match the Republicans in presenting their political ideas as grounded in religious values.

John Kerry, the party’s 2004 nominee, urged Democrats to talk more about their religious values than he did. “The presidency is largely about character,” he said in late 2007. “It has to be influenced by your value system and beliefs.”

Thus, candidates of both parties invited religious leaders into the political arena, and some were only too eager for the spotlight.

But the religious free-for-all that emerged hasn’t resulted in a high-minded discussion of values. Instead, it’s been a low discussion of prejudices.

Obama, the likely Democratic standard-bearer, has been especially burned. His association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. was once a point of authenticity in the African-American community. And Obama enjoyed some early praise as a Democrat who is comfortable discussing church-based values.

But when Wright refused to back off his extreme statements - and seemed almost to enjoy taunting Obama - the candidate was obliged to repudiate him.

Then, last week, another of Obama’s spiritual advisers, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, delivered an odd sermon of his own.

Pfleger, a Catholic priest, took the pulpit of Obama’s Protestant church and, in what would have seemed like a broad parody were it not apparently respectful, imitated the cadences of a black preacher. He caricatured Clinton, presenting her as weeping in outrage over losing a nomination she felt entitled to because she is white.

On Saturday, in a statement so terse you could practically see the clenched teeth, Barack and Michelle Obama resigned from their longtime church, saying, “We don’t want to have to answer for everything that’s stated in the church. We also don’t want the church subjected to the scrutiny that a presidential campaign legitimately undergoes.”

That scrutiny has also attached to those religious-right leaders such as the Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed McCain only to come under attack for making statements offensive to Catholics and Jews.

McCain, who had sought Hagee’s support, then rejected it, called his statements “deeply offensive and indefensible.”

In seeking to inject some religion into their campaigns, McCain and Obama have proved Kerry and many others wrong: Religion and politics don’t mix easily or well.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe’s Washington bureau chief.