Forgive Them for Their Religious Advisers?

Political watchers say such revelations are the price politicians pay for cozying up to religious leaders.

"It can obviously come back and bite you if the pastor or religious leader is outrageous," said Ted G. Jelen, a University of Nevada political science professor who has written extensively on religion and politics. "But in general, it's a low-risk game."

Religious Advisers Confer Religious Image

Because most Americans view themselves as somewhat religious, Jelen said it's politically advantageous for candidates to highlight their faith.

Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama have spoken openly about their faith during the campaign, and both have reached out to religious voters, touting the endorsements and support from influential religious leaders to appeal to religious or so-called "values voters."

Soon-to-be Republican nominee John McCain, who antagonized Christian evangelicals by calling Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" during the 2000 campaign, has made broad overtures to his party's religious voters this time around.

But while certain revelations can be politically embarrassing for a presidential candidate, the benefit of a religious image and ties to influential ministers generally outweigh any political risk.

In 2007, 70 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "It's important to me that a president have strong religious beliefs," according to a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

By highlighting the backing of religious leaders, presidential candidates may form a deeper connection with voters who place a high priority on a candidate's faith.

"The idea that the candidate goes to church or, in Obama's case, is a Christian is the most important thing to many Americans," Jelen said.

Some Democratic strategists say political ties to influential ministers can have a big payoff at the polls, especially among churches with a sizable population of African-Americans that typically have ambitious get-out-the-vote efforts.

"By having ministers and religious leaders in your campaign, it's a statement of humility that you know there are forces greater than you," Democratic strategist Robert Weiner said.

"They have had an enormously wonderful positive impact on American political life," Weiner said, speaking broadly of the religious leaders aligned with many Democratic politicians.

Many of the candidates have appointed religious advisers to their campaigns. In light of the controversy, Wright stepped down from Obama's black religious leaders' campaign committee.

But some Democratic strategists argue the campaign roles given to religious advisers are far more superficial, designed to reinforce the notion that the candidate has the support of influential religious leaders.

"This is just a collection of people who have some religious influence who are put together by the campaign for endorsement purposes," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said. "To dig up what one of them might have said years ago, at some point it becomes a ridiculous gotcha game."

For his part, Wright has also come under fire for remarks he made about Clinton.

In one of his sermons, Wright spoke about Clinton, suggesting some voters hate Obama because he "doesn't fit the model -- he ain't white, he ain't rich and he ain't privileged."

Wright said Clinton does fit that mold.

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