- (Photo: AP Images / Stephan Savoia)
In 1961, after John F. Kennedy's Catholic faith proved not to be an insurmountable barrier to the White House, Billy Graham predicted that religion would never again be such a divisive force in elections.
The evangelist could not have anticipated YouTube, 24-hour news cycles and a roster of candidates featuring a Mormon, an African-American Protestant and someone raised in a Pentecostal church.
The intersection of religion and politics has endured its share of head-on collisions during the 2008 campaign — most involving candidates' religious resumes or those of people in their circles.
With a few exceptions, whatever seemed odd or fringe trumped serious discussion about how candidates' religious beliefs shape their approach to governance.
As the race nears its end, scholars and religious leaders are using terms like "new low" and "embarrassing" to describe how religious beliefs were distorted and picked over, while candidates were asked to mount theological defenses for their respective faiths or be held accountable for the views of others.
"Religion is reduced to the exotic or to morality bumper stickers, or just a trump card for identity politics," said Eric Gregory, an assistant professor of religion at Princeton University. "The focus becomes buzzwords or personal piety rather than the way religion impacts issues."
While campaign attacks involving religion go way back — Thomas Jefferson was accused of atheism and William Howard Taft came under fire for being a Unitarian — not since Kennedy's Catholicism was dissected has religion been so used as a weapon in an election.
Democrat Barack Obama has talked of bridging religious divides, and his campaign sought to reach out to religious voters on a scale unprecedented for a Democrat. Yet Obama's ability to speak more openly about religion in the public square was compromised by echoes of former pastor Jeremiah Wright thundering "God Damn America" in clips that dominated cable television for weeks last spring.
Obama finally cut ties with Wright, and the pastor's rhetoric receded from view — until this week, when it reappeared in TV ads produced by an independent Republican group.
Wright is fair game, critics of Obama and some neutral observers say, because the pastor and politician were clearly close and Obama did not leave the church until Wright forced his hand.
Even with all the attention on Wright, a recent poll indicated that 12 percent of the public persisted in believing the false rumor that Obama was a Muslim; U.S. Muslims said both campaigns treated them as political lepers, and drew comfort late in the game when retired Gen. Colin Powell condemned "smears" against their faith.
Republican John McCain, who cites religion as a source of strength but tends to keep it private, sought to improve his shaky standing with the Christian right by securing primary endorsements from pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Yet McCain rejected them after sermons surfaced of Parsley likening Islam to the Antichrist and of Hagee portraying Hitler as God's tool for delivering Jews to the promised land.
McCain isn't close to either man, which invited criticism that he was merely playing politics.
Theological defenses were mounted for Wright and Hagee, but the damage was done.
GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's faith appeals to social conservatives. Yet it became a distraction when footage emerged showing the Alaska governor invoking God's will to get a pipeline built and a Kenyan pastor praying that Palin be protected from witchcraft.
In an interview with Trinity Broadcasting Network, Palin said "faith — not just my faith — faith and God in general has been mocked through this campaign." She did not give specifics.
Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., pointed out that none of these problematic characters were media creations. All were welcomed into the candidates' orbits.
"When you have religious figures who want to play in the public square, some are going to say things that are not calm, cool and collected," Silk said. "It ought to be cautionary for politicians."
The thread linking the above stories: videotaped sermons posted online, sometimes by churches trying to reach bigger audiences but increasingly by political activists looking for toxic material.
"This year we invaded churches with cell phones and started putting sermons up on YouTube," said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown political science professor. "That's been troubling, because you would like to think a candidate would have a little privacy in church."
David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia, said that more so than in past elections, religion became "a marker of identity" for candidates this year.
"It was disconnected from specific policy views and really had to do with whether this person was acceptable culturally because of their religious associations or identifications," said Gushee, author of "The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center." "All of this functioned in a pretty destructive and not terribly illuminating way in this campaign."
That was in part because the slate of candidates more resembled America's religious melting pot. For the first time, Gushee pointed out, there was a serious Mormon candidate in Mitt Romney, a serious candidate with roots in Pentecostalism in Palin and a serious candidate from an African-American church that preaches black liberation theology in Obama.
"Every time a candidate comes along who brings a religious background that is unfamiliar, the press and the culture does this digging around and trying it on for size," Gushee said.
Romney, more than any candidate, experienced that.
Some evangelical pastors said voting for Romney amounted to endorsing a cult. GOP rival Mike Huckabee, a populist Baptist, wondered whether Mormons believe Jesus and the devil were brothers. Romney was asked about polygamy and sacred Mormon undergarments.
Eventually, Romney delivered a major speech in which he declared that as president he would "serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause," and said calls for him to explain and justify his religious beliefs go against the wishes of the nation's founders.
"Personal opinion: historians will look back on 2008 with disbelief," Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for the Mormon church, wrote this month on a Newsweek-Washington Post blog.
"The media, political pundits and many of the public have gorged themselves on religious issues of almost complete irrelevance while the country, deeply divided by everything from the Iraq war to how to control the price of gas, has spiraled toward economic meltdown."
Yet candidates' religious beliefs did get some serious treatment. At an event called the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, Obama and Hillary Clinton answered questions about global warming, Darfur and their favorite Bible versus. McCain declined to attend, citing a scheduling conflict.
Then in August, McCain and Obama fielded questions from mega-pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Civil Forum. McCain's crisp answers about the definition of marriage and "at what point is a baby entitled to human rights?" — conception, McCain replied — helped rehabilitate his reputation with the Christian right.
The '08 race also has featured a richer debate about how religious voters weigh their political choices. A growing chorus of evangelicals pressed for a broader issues agenda and a bolder Catholic left challenged U.S. bishops who identify abortion as a paramount voting issue.
How these developments play out will be known in less than a week, when exit polls provide a glimpse into what role religious voters played in electing the next president.
But Martin Marty, one of the nation's pre-eminent religion scholars, already has reached one conclusion: the rancorous campaign has been bad for religion.
The retired University of Chicago professor wrote in a commentary this week that the exploitation and exhibition of religion in the race is "bad for the name of religion itself, for religious institutions, for a fair reading of sacred texts, for sundered religious communities, for swaggering religious communities which are too sure of themselves, for the pursuit of virtue, for extending the reach of religion too far."
In other words, the loser in this election is religion.