GOP candidates woo religious right but bios play down faith
Something doesn’t seem to add up right here. Religion is a key factor in U.S. politics. Leading Republican contenders in the White House race are trooping to the Values Voter Summit in Washington this Friday and Saturday. The summit is hosted by the Family Research Council, an influential lobby group with strong evangelical ties. This group of (mostly) white evangelical Protestants, often referred to as the “religious right”, is a key base of support for the Republican Party. And they have yet to rally around any single Republican candidate, leaving the race on the right wide open.
But you wouldn’t know the Republican field is trying to win this crowd over if you glanced at the offiicial biographies posted on their campaign web sites. These mini-bios suggest, perhaps revealingly, that the Republican hopefuls are reluctant to draw attention to their religious affiliation — at least on their campaign web sites, the portal where voters often get aquainted with them.
Let’s start with Mitt Romney. His web site bio says he has served “extensively in his church…” But it never mentions that he is a Mormon and his church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints. The closest it gets is mentioning that he got his B.A. at Brigham Young University (without saying this is a Mormon institution). That may be just as well because many white evangelical Protestants — the base Romney will address in Washington this week — view Mormonism as a heretical sect. Among U.S. white evangelicals who attend church at least once a week, 45 percent say the Mormon faith is not Christian, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.
That Rudy Giuliani’s website fails to make any reference to his Roman Catholic faith is absolutely no surprise. There has been conservative talk of backing a third-party candidate if the former New York mayor — who has been playing down his earlier positions for abortion rights and gay rights — wins the Republican nomination. At least one Catholic bishop has said he should not receive communion. Rudy’s site has two heavy hints from his school days — Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School and Manhattan College — but avoids saying they’re Catholic. Hizzoner initially turned down an invite to address the FRC summit — but will be there for what will be a keenly watched session on Saturday morning.
Former Tennessee Senator and Hollywood actor Fred Thompson is mum about his current church affiliation. But his web site bio does mention that he attended the “First Street Church of Christ” when he was growing up. At least that’s clear.
John McCain’s approach is more complex. He’s been trying to rebuild the bridges to the religious right after dousing it with fuel and setting it ablaze during the 2000 campaign. Back then, he called Jerry Falwell “an agent of intolerance.” He recently started saying he was a Baptist, even though he had long identified himself as an Episcopalian. His own web site avoids mentioning religion at all (and also doesn’t say that he attended Episcopalian High School in Alexandria, Virginia, according to The Christian Century). And he has kicked up a storm on Baptist blogs by saying he is Baptist but hasn’t taken that church’s trademark full-immersion dunk. This won him the tag “semi-Baptist” from the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog .
Sam Brownback is often seen as a darling of the religious right, so why doesn’t he flaunt his church-going habits or spiritual affiliation on his campaign web site ? His bio quotes the New York Times as saying that he is “one of the most conservative, religious, fascinating … politicians in America today.” But which religion, please? Is the Kansas senator hesitant to advertise the fact that he is a former evangelical Protestant who converted to Catholicism? Might not go down too well at the VVS.
Only one significant contender from the Republican field, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, makes the kind of explicit reference to his faith that you might expect from someone planning to press the flesh at the Values Voter Summit. His web bio says: “A significant part of his adult life was spent as a pastor and denominational leader. He became the youngest president ever of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, the largest denomination in Arkansas.”
Is this religious transparency because he has nothing to hide from the religious right — or sees them as his best shot at glory?