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WASHINGTON LETTER Aug-22-2008 (870 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With photos posted Aug. 18 and graphic posted Aug. 22. xxxn

Faith and politicians: Less important to voters but more visible?

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Although millions of people tuned in recently to watch Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama talk about how their religious faith affects their political views, a new public opinion poll found that American voters increasingly are uncomfortable when politicians talk about their religion.

Could the two apparently contradictory snapshots mean that religion-based rhetoric is not going to be as polarizing a factor in this year's election as it has been in the past?

At the Saddleback Forum held at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., the Rev. Rick Warren, founding pastor and author of the best-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life," questioned McCain, R-Ariz., and Obama, D-Ill., separately for an hour each in a nationally broadcast session held in the sanctuary of his 20,000-member evangelical church.

Rev. Warren posed nearly identical questions to each senator, starting with queries about whose advice they value, what some of their personal moral failings have been and how the nation has failed morally.

The event was praised by some commentators as a long-overdue elevation of faith and morals as valuable indicators of the candidates' suitability to serve as president. Others decried it as an inappropriate injection into the campaign of a "religious test" for the presidency.

Still, millions watched and major news outlets covered thoroughly an event run by a preacher and held in a church. Analysts gave almost as much attention to the nuances of McCain's and Obama's responses about their faith as they have devoted to parsing the candidates' options for running mates.

At the same time, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said in a report released Aug. 21 that a majority of voters -- 52 percent -- now say churches should keep out of politics. That's a steady increase since 1996, when 43 percent agreed with the statement. As recently as 2004, only 44 percent expressed that opinion. The most dramatic shift in favor of churches staying out of politics came from conservatives and evangelicals.

Pew said that "the change of mind about the role of religious institutions in politics is most apparent among people who are most concerned about the very issues that churches ... have focused on, and among those who fault the parties for their friendliness toward religion."

Msgr. Frank Maniscalco was among those who paid close attention to the Saddleback Forum. The former communications secretary for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and current public policy director and pro-life office director for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., was among panelists who e-mailed comments about the forum as it progressed to USA Today for reports posted on the newspaper's Web site.

He told Catholic News Service he thought the forum was valuable for the chance to see the candidates in a format that wasn't suited to sound-bite answers. Unlike traditional one-on-one debates moderated by journalists, Msgr. Maniscalco said Rev. Warren seemed to genuinely want to engage McCain and Obama in conversation.

"He was not acting as a 'gotcha' moderator," he said. The format allowed Obama to describe at length his interest in programs to reduce the number of abortions, for instance.

But while crediting Obama for some issues on which his positions mesh with the Catholic Church's stance, such as funding for AIDS relief, Msgr. Maniscalco faulted Obama for sidestepping a question about when a baby gets human rights.

Obama said the answer depends on "whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective," and that the answer is "above my pay grade."

Msgr. Maniscalco said in a message sent during the forum that the answer "was a disaster. Not only did he dodge the basic question about the rights of the unborn but the dodge was not even intellectually respectable. Pay grade, indeed."

He said he thought the forum gave him a chance to get to know the candidates, especially McCain, better. He said he appreciated McCain's succinct response to the question about a baby's rights: "At the moment of conception."

But Msgr. Maniscalco faulted the Arizona senator for his support for research using human embryonic stem cells, calling that "clearly inconsistent" with his stated belief about when life begins.

The Rev. Jennifer Butler, a Presbyterian minister who heads Faith in Public Life, a resource center created by interfaith national religious leaders, said she thought the Saddleback Forum was a "landmark," in that it "shows that faith is not going to be captive to any one political party."

The organizers of Faith in Public Life come from a wide range of religions. Its board members include St. Joseph Sister Catherine Pinkerton and Episcopalian, Unitarian, Muslim and Baptist leaders, Republicans as well as Democrats.

Rev. Butler said she would like to have seen the candidates questioned by representatives of other religions, but she thought the Saddleback Forum still elevated the role of faith in the political campaign.

The questioning fit with at least one goal of those who envisioned the Saddleback Forum and an earlier Compassion Forum sponsored by her organization, she said: "As long as we're saying faith is important to people, but regardless of your faith, it will be respected."


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