The Evolution of Religion in Politics

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“I have a strong sense that in 2008, something new is beginning,” said E.J. Dionne, Jr. on a panel at the Center for American Progress Action Fund yesterday. Dionne was joined by Amy Sullivan and Jim Wallis, all three of whom have published recent books on the evolving role of religion in American politics.

Dionne, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, said that the differences between this year’s presidential campaign season and the 2004 election cycle are miraculous.

Personal faith has been a vibrant force in this year’s presidential election campaigns, especially for the Democratic candidates. Both Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speak comfortably of their faith and explain their policies in terms of religious and moral values, said Amy Sullivan, an editor at Time Magazine.

Jim Wallis, president and executive director of Sojourners, described the broadening of the evangelical agenda in the past four years: Once limited to a few wedge issues, evangelical priorities now include poverty, the environment, torture, and the war in Iraq. All three panelists agreed that this is a welcome and unexpected departure from the 2004 presidential election, when a significant majority of evangelicals voted for a narrow conservative agenda. According to Sullivan, 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) failed to engage America’s more moderate and conservative religious voters.

“None of us ever believed that Republicans and conservatives had a monopoly on religion,” Sullivan said, but she wouldn’t have guessed that this year it would be the Republican presidential candidate—Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)—who appears uncomfortable talking about his faith.

Polls indicate that poverty and the war in Iraq are now more important to evangelicals than are abortion and gay marriage. And issues are expanding to have a social justice component, with evangelicals considering poverty and social mobility as key components of the abortion issue, said Wallis.

People of faith are blurring ideological lines and decoupling religion from partisan allegiances by bringing together conservatives and progressives to work on pressing issues. For example, last year Rev. Rick Warren, who wrote the Purpose Driven Life, invited both Sens. Obama and Sam Brownback (D-KS) to talk to his mega-church in California about AIDS.

In some ways, Democrats in the past four years have made inroads among people of faith, and by doing so, have “leveled the praying field.” Panelists agreed that religious voices have more power to influence policy because they are no longer presumed to be a conservative ally.

But it is not just evangelical voters who are engaging both political parties; Catholic voters—many of whom disagree with conservatives on poverty and liberals on abortion—are a strong swing vote, Dionne pointed out. Since both political parties are now attempting to engage religious voters, these voters have the ability to hold both parties accountable to a broad social-justice agenda.

All this talk of religion begs an important question: Can an atheist be elected president? According to polls, the answer is, “not yet,” and that’s unfortunate, said Sullivan. But since religious issue bases are beginning to broaden, the “religious candidate” designation will apply to a larger pool of politicians. Hopefully, this will broaden even further into a moral test, rather than a religious test, for office.

The media may be the last frontier in this religious awakening, said Wallis. According to Sullivan, the media are asking candidates irrelevant questions—like what their favorite Bible verse is—rather than questions that would indicate the personal character and moral compass that they would bring to the White House.

In any event, 2008 has a hopeful climate where religion is no longer pigeon-holed into a particular political camp, and evangelicals are broadening their fight for social justice.

“I wanted this, I worked for this, I hoped for this,” Wallis said, “and it happened a lot faster than I ever would have dreamed.”

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