Faith Playing Big Role in Presidential Race Amid Evangelical Shift

WASHINGTON – All the candidates in the 2008 presidential race claim to be Christians and never has religion played such a prominent role since John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, as The Associated Press has noted.

"All the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls have been grilled on their religious beliefs," AP pointed out. "Most seem eager to talk publicly about their faith as they actively court religious voters."

Hopping on the bandwagon of the faith and values debate, which had largely been ceded to the Republicans, are the Democratic candidates. Strategist Mike McCurry called it "a Great Awakening in the Democratic Party," according to Time magazine.

The Democratic presidential hopefuls are being urged to reach out to evangelical Christians as many are recognizing a major shift in the religious-political landscape. Howard Dean, current chairman of the Democratic National Committee, highlighted a new generation of evangelical leaders that are fighting poverty and global warming and pushing for immigration reform. Such leaders are also setting aside "those things that divide us" and doing things "that bring people together," Dean said earlier.

Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., is strongly pro-life but rather than attacking Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)'s pro-choice stance, he asked at a recent CNN/Sojourners debate if she could envision creating a common ground with the pro-life community.

Clinton gave her standard response that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare. And, by rare, I mean rare."

"Our focus on arguments and opponents is not working and it prevents even incremental progress," said Hunter, according to The Orlando Sentinel.

Hunter has become a face in this new generation of evangelical leaders and his book Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won't Fly With Most Conservative Christians will be re-released next year under the new title A New Kind of Conservative.

"This is a group of successful pastors, mostly, who are more centrist and less partisan than the Old Guard of the Religious Right, and who present a more winsome and moderate face of evangelical Christianity," said Jeff Sheler, author of Believers: A Journey of Evangelical America, according to the local Sentinel.

While faith is looming large in the 2008 race, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) doesn't think focusing on candidates' religion is helpful.

"I don't think it's helpful as candidates or as a country to get into discussions about who's more religious," said the presidential hopeful in an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network's The Brody File. "That sounds a little like storing up treasures on earth to me. I've just always been clear that my Christian faith has motivated me for twenty years and I'm not ashamed to talk about it, or the role that faith should play in our American life."

While Clinton describes herself as a Methodist, Obama, who is a member of the United Church of Christ, simply calls himself a Christian. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards has also described himself as a Methodist.

Among Republican candidates, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani says he is a Catholic; Arizona Sen. John McCain, an Episcopalian; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon; former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a Southern Baptist; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist; and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a Catholic.

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