Religion Played Prominent and Unprecedented Role in '08 Politics

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama participated in the Civil Forum on the Presidency at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., in August. It was moderated by the Rev. Rick Warren, center, who is Obama's controversial pick to give the inaugural invocation.
Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama participated in the Civil Forum on the Presidency at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., in August. It was moderated by the Rev. Rick Warren, center, who is Obama's controversial pick to give the inaugural invocation. (Mario Anzuoni - Reuters)

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By Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Barack Obama chose Joe Biden, and John McCain turned to Sarah Palin, but in the end the most sought-after running mate in the 2008 campaign never appeared on a single ballot.

God, it seems, couldn't be entirely wooed by either party.

The unprecedented and extraordinary prominence of religion in the 2008 election was easily the year's top religion story. Both parties battled hard for religious voters, and both were forced to distance themselves from outspoken clergy whose fiery rhetoric threatened to become a political liability.

In the end, the top prize went to Obama, the son of a Muslim-born father and an atheist mother, who spent much of the campaign fighting off persistent -- and untrue -- rumors that he was a closet Muslim. His party, after years of consistently losing churchgoers to Republicans, decisively won Catholics, Jews and black Protestants, and made small but significant inroads among some evangelicals.

McCain, meanwhile, managed to shore up his dispirited base of religious conservatives, winning three of four born-again or evangelical votes, but his troubled campaign could not overcome an onslaught of negative economic news that, in the end, trumped all other issues.

"It's very tempting but a bit dangerous to over-interpret what happened," said Luis Lugo, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Clearly Obama improved across all religious groups, but the economy just overwhelmed every other issue."

Still, the 2008 campaign was remarkable for the ways religion -- or religious figures -- played such a prominent role. Obama was forced to sever ties with his fiery pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, for sermons that were deemed racist, anti-American and at times downright bizarre. McCain, in turn, was forced to return the endorsements of Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee and Ohio's Rod Parsley.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson tried to play kingmaker by first saying he would not vote for McCain "under any circumstances" and later calling the Palin pick "God's answer" to prayer. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who proved most popular among religious conservatives and won the Iowa Republican caucuses in January, failed to gain traction despite ads that dubbed him a "Christian leader."

Obama and Biden faced strong opposition from Catholic leaders over their support of abortion rights. One American cardinal, James Stafford, called Obama's election "apocalyptic," and a South Carolina Catholic priest told Obama supporters to head to confession before receiving Communion.

All of that, Lugo said, shows that voters want politicians to be at least somewhat religious -- but prefer to make up their own minds, without the interference of politically outspoken clergy.

"People still do not want religious institutions or religious leaders to weigh in on politics," Lugo said. "There's strong opposition to it, and a strong consensus against it."

Even after the election, contention over a religious figure continued to dog Obama. The president-elect's selection of megapastor Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation spurred anger among liberal groups and gay activists. They have criticized Warren's opposition to abortion and gay marriage and are unhappy that Obama has given him a prominent role.


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