By DAN K. THOMASSON
So the religious genie whose head and shoulders appeared from confinement in the 2004 presidential election may be completely out of the bottle the next time.
Take the case of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. If there was any lingering doubt about her intentions in 2008, they were put to rest recently by her on-air conversation with National Public Radio host Tavis Smiley. The subject of her remarks _ nicely set up by Smiley _ clearly indicated that faith would be part of her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, if she chooses to make it.
That more than the fact that Smiley’s popular weekend talk show is a sounding board for black issues and is widely listened to by black and white leaders was the real significance of her appearance. After all, black voters have overwhelmingly supported Democrats since 1933, and Republicans have failed to make serious inroads there no matter what they have done, including providing the key votes for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Clinton made it abundantly clear in what could only be seen as a direct appeal to the faith-based voters who have had such a large impact in recent elections that her religious beliefs are equally important to her. She and other potential candidates feel that these voters will play an important role in deciding the election. Not necessarily those on the so-called Christian right, but in the middle, where most religious Americans reside. Important among those who now seem to openly vote their religion are the active youngsters whose turnout for George W. Bush in 2004 caught most pollsters by surprise.
The New York senator, who is a huge favorite for re-election in November, told Smiley that she was fortunate to have had parents who believed strongly that children should have religious training. She related seeing her father kneeling by the bedside praying every night. She also said he was a youth minister at her church, and that he placed a great deal of importance on making certain his affluent, middle-class charges were aware that there were less fortunate youngsters. She said they met with other church groups throughout the Chicago area, including many from the black community.
Clinton’s remarks came following a national meeting in which elected officials from both parties discussed the importance of religion as an issue. The group included such diffuse personalities as archconservative Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and moderate-to-liberal Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a presidential prospect if not immediately, then certainly in the future. In fact, Obama is seen by many as a potential vice-presidential nominee in a number of 2008 scenarios that have a black on both tickets.
Longtime Clinton observers believe she is skillfully moving herself toward the middle of the electoral stream without giving up her liberal credentials on such issues as health care and education. She was a supporter of a proposed constitutional amendment making it a crime to desecrate the American flag, which drew anger from liberals, and she has refused to join those who would set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq, another slap at her party’s leftist base.
However, the prospect of candidates increasingly having to certify their religious background or swear fealty to any faith is a bit frightening, considering the Constitution’s clearly pronounced separation of church and state doctrine. The door was opened in the 2000 election when Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, who is Jewish, spoke openly about his religiosity. Since then, more and more candidates have been citing their faith as one of their qualifications for office.
Religion is expected to play more of a direct role in the next presidential balloting than at any other time since 1960, when John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was an issue in both the primary and general elections. Presidential elections until the last 30 years have been relatively free of religious overtones. But that began to change with the emergence of the so-called Moral Majority led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
As first lady for eight years, Clinton did not make much of her religious training or her continuing beliefs. The Clintons, as have most presidential families, regularly attended church services, but were not prominently involved in any particular faith. Given the religious diversity of this nation, that was probably politically wise. But things have changed some and keeping religion off the stump is no longer fashionable — at least when it comes to openly discussing the subject for a lot of voters who seem to assign a great deal of importance to it.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)