The questions about religion began with the primary season. On the Republican side you had Mitt Romney, who made no secret of his devotion to Mormonism. Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor, spoke openly of his faith saying his faith “defined him.” During the primary debates Republican candidates fielded questions about when life begins, how the earth began, and about how their personal beliefs would impact their public policy. Mike Huckabee caused a stir when he recorded a Christmas message that appeared to have a floating cross in the background. The questions about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism became so intense he crafted a speech to explain his faith that was compared to President Kennedy’s speech defining his Catholicism. Romney’s speech was billed as the defining moment of his candidacy.
On the Democrat side Hillary Clinton was busy sounding like a southern evangelical while Barack Obama was trying to distance himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor/mentor of 20 years. The Wright controversy threatened to sink Obama’s meteoric rise from relative obscurity to political superstar status. When he finally gave a speech to put the Wright controversy to bed, it turned out to be a rambling speech on racism that, if anything, poured more fuel on the fire by failing to distance himself from Wright and by bringing his grandmother into the debate. Wright wouldn’t go away and neither would Father Pfleger. When Wright met the press and Pfleger decided to imitate Hillary Clinton from Wright’s pulpit, Obama was left with no choice but make a clean break from his now former mentor. Barack and Michelle Obama announced they would leave Trinity Church of Christ and that they wouldn’t be joining another church until after the election.
Now fast forward to the showdown at Saddleback. Rick Warren, arguably the most well known pastor in America, sits down with McCain and Obama for a night of purpose driven politics. Surprisingly, with the teleprompters off and the pressure on, McCain outshines the new great communicator and a crack in the evangelical ice toward McCain sends a much-needed rush of excitement through the Republican base. That small crack breaks wide open just before the Republican Convention when McCain shocks the political establishment by choosing Alaskan Governor and evangelical Christian Sarah Palin as his running mate. Any leftover icy feelings by evangelicals toward McCain totally melted away in the heat of Palin’s convention speech. A new political superstar was born and she just happens to be a born-again Christian.
Now that both teams are set for the final race to the finish, both sides are taking aim at the other sides religious jugular vain. Obama is being accused of being a closet Muslim and his slide in the polls among evangelicals forced him to admit his “above my pay grade” answer to Warren’s question about when life begins was “a bit too flip.” Palin’s family has come under attack by feminists who, amazingly enough, are now concerned about what kind of mother she can be if she is just one heartbeat away from the presidency. When was the last time you heard a femanist leader give a hoot about the traditional family, let alone the role of a woman as a mother?
The latest attack against Palin comes in the form of scrutiny of the Wasilla Bible Church that according to the Associated Press is promoting a “pray away the gay” conference in Anchorage, Alaska. In reality, the conference is a “Love Won Out” conference sponsored by Focus on the Family. These conferences, which have been held in cities all across the country, teach that homosexuality is a lifestyle that can be overcome through prayer and the Word of God. The AP referred to Focus on the Family as a “fundamentalist” organization. A quick perusal of other websites reveal a host of stories about how radical and wacky Palin’s church is. You can be sure the Left will do their best to turn Palin’s pastor into the equivalent of Jeremiah Wright and they will try to paint her church as an extreme right wing haven for assorted religious kooks and cranks.
One thing is for sure…religion is now front and center in the race for the White House and it is showing no signs of retreating. It proves that Americans care deeply about the religious convictions of their leaders. Evangelicals will play a major role in this election. I pray that we will all pray our way through the political static and allow the Word of God and the Holy Spirit of God to be our guide as we choose our next leader. Whoever wins this election, history will record that religion and religious voters played a major role in shaping both campaigns.
Dr. Tony Beam is Vice-President for Student Services and Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina.