This evening, the presidential election of 2008 officially begins with the Iowa caucuses-intense political contests taking place in every county of that Midwestern state. The national campaign, of course, has already been going on for many months (with the earliest start in the history of presidential politics), but now the endless polling will be replaced by actual election results in state caucuses and primaries. Iowa is the starting gun in the political battle that leads to the party nominations, the fall campaign, and a November election that many believe to be the most important in years.
I believe the religious landscape of the 2008 political year will be dramatically different than it was in the 2004 election. And it's quite amazing how much the issue of faith and politics has changed in such a short time. There are two fundamental shifts which have occurred and, taken together, they constitute a real sea change in American politics.
First, in what TIME magazine has called "a leveling of the praying field" the Democrats now speak as much about faith and values as the Republicans do. For example, it has been the Democratic presidential candidates who have devoted the most time in outreach to faith communities in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina - not the Republicans. We have seen top level faith outreach operations as central to the Democratic candidates' campaign strategies and decision-making, their "faith forums" in primary states, newsletters on family and values, and even gospel music tours. All three Democratic front-runners have spoken quite comfortably about their personal faith and its relationship to public life in national forums and debates, at religious institutions and congregations, and in media interviews. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards frequently speak of their history as committed lay persons in their denomination and know the religious community as their own; and Barack Obama sometimes sounds like a public theologian. All three, as well as other Democratic candidates, have explicitly connected their faith to a broad range of issues from poverty to health care, criminal justice, HIV/AIDS, human rights, and to war and peace.
In a striking contrast this year, the Republican Party, which has so associated itself with religion and "values voters" in recent years, has had a serious "God and marriage problem," as many have pointed out. Several of the Republican frontrunners like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Fred Thompson have often seemed uncomfortable and awkward when the language of faith comes up, and, as many have noted, the only one among the early Republican frontrunners with a history of just one wife was the Mormon, Mitt Romney, whose minority religion is suspect among many conservative evangelicals. The candidate with the strongest Christian identity, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, couldn't get the backing of the key leaders of Religious Right and finally surged to the top tier by appealing on his own to the grassroots religious base of the party in places like Iowa and South Carolina. The contrast from 2004, when many in the GOP were describing theirs as "God's own party," is quite stunning.
It is now much clearer that "God is not a Republican or a Democrat," as our bumper sticker from the last campaign read; and that is a good thing. There should be no religious litmus tests for politics - committed Christians will, and should be, on both sides of the political aisle. Indeed, people of faith should never be in any party's or candidate's political pocket and should, ideally, be the ultimate swing vote because of their moral independence from partisan politics. Let's all try to remember that this political year.
Martin Luther once said that he would rather be governed by a competent Turk than by an incompetent Christian, which is a good piece of wisdom to keep in mind this or any election year. What a candidate's moral compass is should be more important than his/her theology or the doctrines of his/her religious tradition. What kind of leader will a candidate be, what are his/her guiding personal and social values, and what is his/her strength of character? These are all key questions.
Second, and even more important than the religious identities of the candidates on either side, is how the agenda of faith communities has undergone a very significant shift. Very clearly, abortion and gay marriage are not the only overriding "moral issues" for many people of faith now, though the sanctity of life (more consistently applied) and healthy families (without scapegoats) are still critical concerns. But now other key moral and religious issues have taken on great importance in the agendas of faith communities. These issues include both global and domestic poverty, pandemic diseases which ravage the developing world, the extreme violations of human rights in places like Darfur, the alarming threats of climate change and the imperatives of "creation care" of the environment, and the need for a more ethical response to the genuine threats of terrorism and a foreign policy more consistent with our best moral values.
Many recent polls show that the votes of millions in the faith community are "in play" this election season, and whichever candidate - Democrat or Republican - speaks the language of moral values and seriously addresses the wider and deeper religious agenda will find resonance this year among the faithful. And for many in the faith community, both character and competence really both matter in choosing the next president. I hear strong positive responses among people of faith when they see the qualities of moral leadership in presidential candidates.
On the Democratic side, I hear great appreciation for John Edwards' passionate and persistent commitment to make poor people a political priority and his challenging the control of the wealthy and powerful over our political process. I hear great attraction, especially among a younger generation, to Barack Obama's call for change to a new kind of politics, beyond left and right, which actually finds solutions to our most pressing problems; and for the first African American President. And I see a real appeal, especially among women, for Hillary Clinton's persistent commitment to issues like children and health care, along with her experience and readiness that says a woman could be the president of the U.S. for the very first time. All three have been willing to challenge the secular rejection of religion and values talk which still exists in their party, and, in the general election, whoever secures the Democratic nomination will be watched carefully by the religious community to see if they will also take on other party orthodoxies on issues like abortion.
One of the highpoints for me of the campaign thus far came in a Republican debate where both Mike Huckabee and John McCain defended the humanity of undocumented people in the midst of an extended attack on "illegal aliens" by other candidates. In the face of some of the most heated rhetoric, John McCain asked his colleagues to remember that the people they were all talking about were "also the children of God." And in defending his inclusion of the children of the undocumented in his state's scholarship programs, Mike Huckabee stood his ground and said the U.S. was not the kind of country that punished children for the mistakes of their parents. Both have been willing to challenge their party on other issues too - McCain supports both comprehensive immigration and campaign finance reform; and Huckabee was recently accused of being a "Christian socialist" by a leading economic conservative because of how he spent money on poor people in Arkansas. One political commentator on the Republican side told me he thought McCain and Huckabee have been rising in the polls because of the "character" they have shown in these debates. On the other hand, despite Rudy Giuliani's popularity in the Republican polls, conservative evangelical leaders like Richard Land insist that their constituency will not vote for him, not merely because of his stances on abortion and gay marriage, but because of his own marital behavior and history. And the evangelical concerns I hear about Mitt Romney are less about his Mormon religion than whether his changes on key moral issues for them are ultimately trustworthy.
All of that suggests that moral values will indeed be a key criteria for religious and "values voters" this election season; but that the definition and range of those moral values will be much wider and deeper than ever before. This time, more than any election in many years, the votes of many in the faith community are still undecided and will be influenced by whoever can win their support with a genuine moral discourse on politics and an agenda of both social and political transformation.