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History, Faith and Politics

The decades between 1970 and 2020 will eventually be seen as one of the most significant periods of our history, especially in regard to the interplay between politics and religion. And the 2008 presidential campaign may well serve as an object lesson for the whole period.

For instance, throughout his campaign for president, Sen. Barack Obama has been actively courting conservative evangelicals, and apparently with some success. According to U.S. News and World Report, Obama is tracking favorably with as much as 30 percent of likely evangelical voters. This doesn’t come close to President Bush’s 78 percent approval rating among the same group in 2004, but it is still a significant development. Obama’s recent pledge to continue and even expand the Office of Faith-Based and Community initiatives was intended in part to reach a moderate segment of the evangelical community.

Ironically, Sen. John McCain continues to have difficulty gaining traction with the conservative religious community. His approval rating among this group is around 64 percent. And while that is a hefty number compared to Obama’s, it is considerably less than the support Bush has enjoyed.

There are several reasons why McCain’s support among conservative evangelicals remains soft. For instance, it did not help him when in 2000 he characterized Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance.” And Christian conservatives remain suspicious that McCain is not rock solid on their key social concerns such as abortion and gay marriage.

In spite of these factors, however, there has been some movement on the part of the Christian right. This past week James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and one of the leading voices among evangelicals, took a small step in McCain’s direction. After refusing to lend his support throughout the Republican primary, Dobson said in a recent radio broadcast, “I never thought I would hear myself saying this, while I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. However, given Sen. Obama’s perceived liberal stance on many right wing social issues, it may be that some evangelicals feel that they have no choice but to hold their noses, pray and vote for McCain.

One issue that could gum up the works entirely for McCain is who he selects for a running mate. There has been considerable speculation that Mitt Romney is a leading contender.

Romney brings many positives to a McCain presidential run ā€¯money contacts, business background, and unyielding loyalty. Unfortunately, as far as the religious right is concerned, he also brings baggage. Romney is a Mormon. And even though Mormons share many of the conservative social values that right wing Christians care about, there are some in the Christian community who do not regard Mormonism as an authentic faith.

What would it look like to those in the conservative Christian community who have issues with Mormons to have one just a heart beat away from being president of the United States? It may be true that the Constitution does not allow a religious test for public office. However, voters can impose whatever sort of test they choose.

In recent decades matters of faith and politics have been inextricably entwined. But in this campaign, at least as far as faith is concerned, there are some loose ends. It will interesting to see if those loose ends get tied up, or unravel altogether.

And history is watching.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.