Candidates’ religious beliefs influence voters

Sarah Palin’s evangelical ties and self-description as a “Bible-believing Christian” may explain why John McCain chose her as his running mate. White evangelicals – a group Palin likely appeals to – gave 78 percent of their votes to George W. Bush in 2004, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

Just how much importance voters place on the candidates’ religious beliefs may affect the upcoming election. Seventy-two percent of Americans agree it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs, according to an August 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Of those surveyed, 45 percent of Republicans said they completely agreed with this view. By contrast, slightly more than one-in-four Democrats (27 percent) and Independents (27 percent) said they completely agreed.

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have distinct religious affiliations; how strong their beliefs are, however, is open for interpretation.

Although raised in an Episcopalian household, McCain has attended North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona for approximately 15 years. By contrast, Obama’s upbringing was not particularly religious, and he remained a self-described skeptic until well into his 20’s. He was baptized in 1988 at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Obama remained a member of Trinity until his resignation in May 2008, following controversial remarks made by the church’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. The pastor brought an unwanted spotlight on the Obama camp when videos of his sermons made their way onto the Internet. Wright’s speeches implied that the U.S. government may have had responsibility in the spread of AIDS in the black community and compared various American wartime actions to terrorism.

McCain has had his own share of controversy from religious backers. At first proud of Rev. John Hagee’s endorsement, McCain later rejected the conservative Christian leader’s support after some of Hagee’s radical opinions surfaced. In one of his comments, Hagee speculated that Adolf Hitler had fulfilled God’s plan by quickening the desire of Jews to return to Israel in agreement with biblical prophecy.

After severing ties with Wright (and Trinity), Obama expressed his intention not to find a new church during the campaign. “There’s an aspect of the campaign process that would not make it a good time to figure out whether a particular church community worked for us,” Obama told Newsweek.

McCain also took into account how his religious choices might affect the race. Although the Southern Baptist Convention encourages adult baptism as a symbol of faith, McCain has not been baptized in the church he currently attends.

“I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs,” McCain said in June 2007. He has considered baptism and discussed it with his pastor, but said he would not do it until after the election because it might appear insincere. The candidates’ concerns may not be unfounded; recent presidential elections have seen a trend of Americans’ religious preferences affecting their vote.

Sometimes referred to as the “God gap,” the trend is for more religiously observant Americans – measured by how often they attend worship service – to vote Republican.

While the link between the candidates’ spiritual beliefs and their political stances may not always be clear, issues like the separation of church and state, abortion, gay marriage, and faith-based initiatives are often intertwined with religious language.

For example, McCain voted in favor of Senate legislation to keep the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Obama was not a senator at the time of the vote, which took place in 2002. Obama believes the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance is an instance where separation between church and state should be less strictly enforced.

“The Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation…We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here, they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles,” McCain said in a September 2007 interview with Beliefnet.

In 2003, McCain voted to ban partial-birth abortions. He supports overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing abortion only in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother. A supporter of abortion rights, Obama voted against a bill in the Illinois State Senate to ban late-term abortions, stating it did not contain a clause to protect the life of the mother. “I trust women to make these decisions in conjunction with their doctors and their families and their clergy,” Obama said during an April 2007 Democratic debate.

Both candidates have expressed hopes that education might reduce the number of abortions, although their approaches are noticeably different. McCain advocates abstinence-based programs, while Obama supports inclusive sex education in which both abstinence and contraception are incorporated. McCain hopes there will be “a point where [Roe v.. Wade] is irrelevant …because abortion is no longer necessary.”

Though their views on abortion differ greatly, McCain and Obama have comparable attitudes toward gay marriage.

Both have expressed a personal belief that a marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. However, McCain supported the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which banned the federal government from recognizing gay marriages and domestic partnerships.

Oppositely, Obama advocates a repeal of DOMA, arguing that “federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples.” McCain believes marriage should be regulated by the states; in 2006, he endorsed an Arizona initiative to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.

Both McCain and Obama favor some form of the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiative, which provides funding for religious charities. McCain plans to continue it and Obama hopes to expand it by allocating $500 million per year for summer learning camps for students.

McCain believes federally-funded groups should be able to consider religion when hiring, while Obama’s plan specifies that these groups should not be allowed to take religion into account when hiring.

The candidates have likely taken their voters’ religions into account. A preference for McCain is highest among white evangelical Protestants (65 percent), while the strongest preference for Obama is visible among black Protestants (94 percent), according to a survey conducted October 23-26 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.