Forgive Them for Their Religious Advisers?
Political Candidates Distance Themselves From Controversial Views of Religious Advisers
By JENNIFER PARKER
March 19, 2008
The controversial views expressed by Sen. Barack Obama's pastor spurred the candidate to address the issue in a major speech this week, renewing scrutiny over the role of religious advisers in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Tuesday Obama struggled to distance himself from the controversial preachings of his pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has said the United States provoked the 9/11 attacks with its own "terrorism" and accused the government of having "started the AIDS virus."
"Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course," Obama said. "Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
Wright married Obama and his wife, Michelle, and baptized their two daughters. Obama credits Wright for the title of his book, "The Audacity of Hope."
Obama said he wouldn't disown Wright but condemned his expression of "views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation," he said.
Republican pundits have pounced on Wright's sermons and Obama's speech on race.
"Do they really want the presidential campaign to be about race, because Barack Obama has made it now about race," conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said. "He has essentially, in not disavowing and distancing himself from Jeremiah Wright, who, by the way, I think the correct way to understand Jeremiah Wright and the way people are reacting to him is not in a racial manner. This is a man who hates the country. Jeremiah Wright is a hatemonger. He hates America. It is patently obvious."
As with the campaign surrogates who have made headlines recently for going off-message, the candidates have gingerly distanced themselves from the controversial views of some of their religious advisers.
Controversial Religious Supporters
In February, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., distanced himself from supporter John Hagee, a televangelist and San Antonio megachurch leader who has referred to the Roman Catholic Church as "the great whore" and called it a "false cult system."
McCain has also been endorsed by Rod Parsley, who has reportedly called for a war on the "false religion" of Islam.
"It's simply not accurate to say that because someone endorses me that I therefore embrace their views," McCain said at a February news conference in Phoenix.
Hagee's views have become a political problem for McCain, who stood with the televangelist and said at a news conference that he was "very honored" to receive his endorsement. Catholic groups are pressuring McCain to reject the endorsement. The Democratic National Committee has also publicized Hagee's comments and his endorsement of McCain.
McCain was raised Episcopalian but now attends a Baptist church in Arizona.
The Methodist church Bill and Hillary Clinton attended during Clinton's presidency got some attention last month when the senior pastor decided to offer services that acknowledge gay and lesbian relationships. Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington will lead services that "recognize and honor" committed gay relationships, although clergy do not perform union ceremonies.
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.
"Hillary never had a cab whiz past her and not pick her up because her skin was the wrong color," Wright said. "Hillary never had to worry about being pulled over in her car as a black man driving in the wrong ... I am sick of Negroes who just do not get it. Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home. Barack was. Barack knows what it means living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a n*****."
Like Surrogates, Religious Advisers' Views Sometimes Impolitic
As with the recent cases of surrogates such as former Obama adviser Samantha Power, who called Clinton "a monster," and former Rep. Geraldine Ferarro of New York who suggested Obama's race was the reason for his success, the views of some religious advisers can be embarrassing to political candidates embroiled in a election.
Clinton hasn't commented on Wright's remark but did demand at an Ohio debate last month that Obama reject and denounce Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for anti-Semitic comments.
"I would not be associated with people who said such inflammatory and untrue charges against either Israel or Jewish people in our country," Clinton said at the debate.
In the end, Obama did "reject and denounce" the comments.
Going Public With Private Faith
For more than 30 years, presidential candidates have attempted to project an image of religiosity.
In the 1976 campaign, former President Jimmy Carter talked about being a born-again Christian; in 1980, former President Ronald Reagan spoke often of his faith and his notion of America as a "shining city" upon a hill. Former President Bill Clinton touted his faith, and President Bush attracted "values voters" in 2000 and 2004 with references to his personal faith.
In the leadup to the 2008 election, both Clinton and Obama have highlighted their faith.
Clinton has said that she probably could not have gotten through her marital troubles and the Monica Lewinsky scandal without relying on her faith in God.
"I am very grateful that I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought," Clinton said last summer in a June forum sponsored by the liberal Sojourners/Call to Renewal evangelical organization.
Unlike Republican candidates who have mobilized religious voters in recent years, Jelen said Democratic candidates have highlighted their faith to battle against the stereotype that they are agnostic or atheist.
After the 2004 elections, Hillary Clinton said it was a mistake to cede "values voters" to the Republicans.
During a speech at Tufts University outside Boston, she called it "a mistake for the Democrats not to engage evangelical Christians on their own turf -- essentially ceding the vote to President Bush."
In 2006, Clinton hired Burns Strider to organize her faith outreach. Strider is an evangelical Christian from Mississippi who previously ran faith outreach for the House Democratic Caucus on Capitol Hill. Obama hired Joshua DuBois as his campaign's national director of religious affairs.
The Obama campaign has struggled in recent months to put to rest Internet rumors that Obama is a Muslim.
The Obama campaign has also accused Clinton of promoting a rumor that Obama is Muslim, highlighting her answer to "60 Minutes" in March that there is no base to the rumors "as far as I know," she said.
Obama stressed during a campaign appearance in Nelsonville, Ohio, that, "I am a devout Christian. I have been a member of the same church for 20 years. I pray to Jesus every night."
Obama's close relationship with his controversial spiritual adviser and his eloquent though complicated reasoning for his unwillingness to disavow him, has renewed interest in the role religion plays in the nation's politics, and may have opened the door to wider future scrutiny of political candidates' religious advisers.
ABC News' Jake Tapper and Dan Harris contributed to this report.