Four years ago, religion was a hot topic during the Republican presidential primaries. Mike Huckabee practically ran for pastor-in-chief, running ads calling himself a Christian leader and talking about Jesus. Mitt Romney handled questions about his Mormon faith (many evangelicals consider Mormonism a heretical cult) by giving a speech arguing that the real enemy is secularism. In one debate, candidates were compelled to take a position on whether the Bible is the inerrant word of God.
Since this year's campaign is just getting underway, unless you're paying close attention you may not have noticed that a similar conversation is taking place, with the Republican candidates working hard to convince conservative Christians that they're right with God. This conversation is profoundly different from the one we will have once a nominee is chosen, and its particular symbols and signals may only occasionally be noticed and understood by people other than the Republican base. Most of the time, you won't hear what the candidates are saying as they go from living room to community center, particularly in early states like Iowa and South Carolina where religious voters play such a key role in the primaries.
But if you're a Republican voter looking for the most devout candidate, you've got yourself an embarrassment of riches. There's Tim Pawlenty, who left the Catholic church for an evangelical megachurch in Minnesota. He and his wife were married by their pastor Leith Anderson, who is now the president of the American Association of Evangelicals. Pawlenty's campaign book is peppered with dozens of quotes from the Bible. There's Michele Bachman, a member of an evangelical Lutheran church who got her law degree at Oral Roberts University. "She comes from us, not to us," said an attendee at the recent Faith and Freedom Coalition conference about Bachmann, which is pretty much the highest compliment a Christian conservative voter can give. There's Newt Gingrich, who built his post-Speakership career converting to Catholicism and reinventing himself as a proselytizer of American religiosity by writing books and making documentaries (if "Rediscovering God In America" left you yearning for more, there's "Rediscovering God In America II"). For the more outward-looking, Herman Cain announced his intention to force Muslims who work for the government to take a special loyalty oath.
To find the source of all this religiosity, glance upward. As New York magazine recently detailed, God has apparently been using a variety of communication technologies to encourage His chosen candidates. When Herman Cain was headed to the airport one day last December, tired and uncertain as to whether he ought to run, he got a text message from his granddaughter telling him she loves him. A sweet and genuine expression of affection from a child? Hardly. "I knew that God was speaking to me through my granddaughter," Cain explained, telling him "that this is something that I have got to at least explore." And yea, verily, Cain is not the only candidate the Lord wants in the race. "We have prayed a lot about this decision," Rick Santorum's wife Karen relates, "and we believe with all our hearts that this is what God wants." If Bachmann announces her candidacy as expected, you'll know it's God talking: "I will not seek a higher office if God is not calling me to do it. That's really my standard," she has said.
But if you're looking for some seriously assertive prayerfulness, look no further than the man many Republicans are desperately hoping will enter the race, Texas governor Rick Perry. If Perry does become president one day, his would be an administration in which a significant portion of policy-making beseeches God for assistance. In April, Perry decided that the best way to handle the drought his state was to issue a proclamation declaring "Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas." Now Perry has decided that the problems afflicting our country require heavenly intervention, so he has organized The Response, an event in Houston in August in which Christians will gather to beg God to get on down here and give us a hand. "Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy," Perry writes in the welcome for the event. "There is hope for America. It lies in heaven and we will find it on our knees."
This kind of thing may make it hard for Perry to win the votes of those who like their church and state a little more separate, not to mention those who aren't Christians (it also won't help that Perry has in the past expressed his belief that those who don't accept Jesus are going to burn in hell for all eternity). But that isn't too much of a problem among the GOP primary electorate, where virtually all voters are Christian. According to exit polls, more than 95 percent of John McCain's vote in 2008 came from Christians.
Nevertheless, many different kinds of people can be Christians of one sort or another, from the fervent fundamentalist to the cafeteria Catholic. Because politics is so much about identity and affinity, the candidates send signals to convince voters that they are part of a shared community. When candidates talk about feeling God's nudge in their decision-making, they are speaking to those who think the same way in their own lives. That comment about Bachmann - "She comes from us, not to us," the "us" in question being core evangelicals - highlights the accompanying quandary. A candidate who excels at the politics of identity, making base voters believe she's "one of us," may be simultaneously telling general election voters that she's "one of them."
This is a problem for both Democrats and Republicans running for president, but it is particularly difficult for Republicans, since their party remains defiantly white and Christian in a country that grows increasingly diverse, both racially and religiously, with each passing year. It isn't that most Democrats don't also affiliate with Christian denominations (they do), but the Democratic coalition also includes almost all of America's Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and the non-religious.
It's neither surprising nor inappropriate that the candidates are speaking in a different language to primary voters than the one they will use for the broader electorate. But they should still be accountable for everything they say and do. Just about the last thing we ought to do is force candidates to engage in a theological debate. But if they imply or say outright that America is really only for some of us (or that others of us are going to hell), then those beliefs and what they represent should be taken into account when November comes. Candidates possessed of empathy and skill are able to convince us that they're one of us without defining "us" in a way that divides and excludes. For this year's Republicans, that will be a challenge.