This presidential election cycle is supposed to be all about religion, right? The pundit mop-up of George Bush’s 2004 victory was all about “values voters,” and while the “God gap” apparently narrowed in the 2006 mid-term elections, we’ve still had any number of articles about how the Democrats are getting religion. (We are awaiting a book from journalist Amy Sullivan on this topic.) And of course religious talk has been much in evidence from the Democrats, including an entire debate devoted to the subject of faith.

Given this new hyper-focus on personal religious faith as a political plus, some of the findings of a survey released earlier this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provide some puzzling material for pundits to chew over.

Consider these contrarian facts:

When asked what issues would be most important to them in terms of voting, all groups — Democrats and Republicans, evangelicals, Catholics and everyone else in between — rated domestic issues (like the economy, health care and education) and the war in Iraq as more important than social issues (like abortion and gay marriage.)

Note in the Pew table to the left, of course, there are some variations: 45% of Republicans mention social issues as “very important” compared with 36% of Democrats, and White evangelicals are most concerned with social issues (56% mentioning them as “very important,”) compared to mainline Protestants, who are the least concerned (28%.)

While some might argue that on a local level, these slight differences might make or break a president, it seems unlikely that the 2008 election will be all about the “values voters.”

Here’s another one: The two most popular candidates right now are not the candidates perceived as most religious. According to the Pew survey, Hillary Clinton is perceived as less religious than either Barack Obama or John Edwards, yet she is the current front-runner. Similarly on the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani leads in popularity, even though he is perceived as less religious than Fred Thompson, John McCain and Mitt Romney. (And ReligionWriter would like to meet the 14% of people who perceived Giuliani as “very religious.”)

If religion matters in 2008, then pundits are going to have to explain Giuliani’s popularity with Republicans — where did all the values voters go? Here too the Pew study may provide a clue: Could Giuliani be riding a wave of favorable ignorance? Nearly 60% of voters who say that social issues are “very important” don’t know what Giuliani’s position on abortion is (he says he “believes in a woman’s right to choose.”) In other words, more than half of the people one expects to reject Giuliani outright are unaware of his abortion stance — it seems that Giuliani might have a tough row to hoe if his lead continues and “values voters” become better informed about his social issue positions.

Some parting questions:

In talking faith and values, are Democrats fighting the last war?

Will the mini-industry of religion-and-politics pundits and reporters (ReligionWriter included) fairly report on the unimportance of religion in the campaign?

If religion is a non-decisive issue in 2008, will all the buzz over religion in public life fade away, to be replaced by another, yet-to-be discovered issue? (Readers, tell us what this might be!)


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Question: What does the current field of presidential contenders have in common with the Supreme Court bench? Answer: It is disproportionately Catholic.

Using the handily compiled religious biographies of the presidential candidates (which number 16, if undeclared Fred Thompson is included) from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ReligionWriter discovered these interesting tidbits.

Six out of 16 presidential candidates, or 38%, are Catholic (and five out of nine, or 56%, Supreme Court justices are Catholic.) Nationwide, Catholics make up an estimated 24.5% of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. (That percentage may be lower now, since it declined by 2.3% between 1990 and 2001, and because an increasing number of American Hispanics are leaving Catholicism for other — or no- religions, according to a recent Pew Forum study.)

The six Catholic candidates are: Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Christopher Dodd, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson.

The candidate roster also reflects what scholars call the vibrancy of the American “religious marketplace,” in which individuals often choose new religious identities. (ReligionWriter covered this trend in her Feb. 2007 Religion News Service article, “For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given.”) Five Six candidates now practice faiths different from the ones they grew up with:

  • Democrat Mike Gravel grew up as a Roman Catholic, attending Catholic schools, and now belongs to the Unitarian Church. (Gravel’s profile is not yet posted on the Pew Forum’s website.)
  • Republican Ron Paul grew up it the Lutheran faith, married and baptized his five children in the Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as a Baptist. (Paul’s profile is not yet posted at the Pew Forum.)
  • Republican Sam Brownback grew up attending United Methodist and other mainline Protestant churches. He later attended a nondenominational evangelical church and, in 2002, converted to Catholicism.
  • Democrat John Edwards was raised a Southern Baptist, “drifted away” from his faith as a young man. After the tragic death of his son in 1996, he became more religious, and he is now a United Methodist.
  • Democrat Barack Obama grew up in a largely non-religious environment, the son of an absentee Muslim-turned-atheist father and a non-practicing Protestant mother. He now belongs to the United Church of Christ.
  • Winning honorable mention in this category is Democrat Christopher Dodd, who, while adhering the Catholicism of his childhood, is married to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church.) The couple’s children are being raised in both faiths.
  • UPDATE 8/21: Tom Tancredo is also a convert. Born a Roman Catholic of Italian heritage, Tancredo converted to evangelical Presbyterianism.

For those interested crunching their own numbers, here are the religious affiliations of the remaining candidates:

Hillary Clinton: United Methodist

Mike Huckabee: Southern Baptist

Duncan Hunter: Southern Baptist

John McCain: Episcopal

Mitt Romney: Mormon

Fred Thompson: Church of Christ

Re: Fred Thompson, here’s a question best answered by the citizen journalists of McLean, Va., where Fred Thompson now lives: Is the former Senator from Tennessee currently a member of a local Church of Christ? Although Thompson grew up in this largely conservative denomination, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in a United Church of Christ, a more liberal denomination. If Thompson belongs to a church, of any denomination, in Northern Virginia, that has not yet been reported.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, ReligionWriter notes that she regularly contributes to the Pew Forum and compiled several of the candidate profiles mentioned here.)

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When interviewed tonight on Bill Moyers’ Journal, Imam Zaid Shakir appeared relaxed, looking straight at Mr. Moyers with his light brown eyes. But when the subject turned to the question of the divine mandate for wife-beating, Imam Shakir appeared flustered.

Moyers read to Shakir a translation of the Koranic verse 4:34, which, in the Yusuf Ali translation, reads in part:

As to those women on whose party ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all.)

Moyers described this verse as written by men, for men, and asked Shakir: Couldn’t some men interpret this as divine sanction to beat their wives? (As of 10:40 PM June 22, the show’s transcript was not online.)

ReligionWriter was curious to see if Shakir would mention a recent translation of that verse by an American Muslim woman, which rendered the word formerly translated as to “beat them” to read “go away from them.” Shakir did not reference that translation, indicating that the new translation has not yet been embraced by mainstream Muslims like Shakir.

Instead, he made the point that the verse must be read within the context of the entire Koran (i.e. where justice and mercy are commanded,) and that men who beat their wives would do so with or without divine sanction.

Moyers then pressed Shakir on the issue of woman-led prayer — a concept Shakir rejects. Moyer asked him if, in fact, American Muslims would have to adapt to “American” standards and accept female religious leadership. Moyers repeated use of the word “American” — along with his somewhat impassioned tone — seemed a bit odd, given that many American religious groups do not accept female clerical leadership. For example, GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson’s church, the Churches of Christ, do not allow women to preach or lead a mixed congregation. In the Mormon church, only men can access the priesthood; in the Catholic Church women’s ordination is not allowed.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the interview with Shakir was his description of his mother, as a thoughtful and well-read single mother of seven. Next month, Shakir’s sister is publishing her mother’s diary, Dear Self: A Year in the Life of a Welfare Mother. In the Moyers segment, Shakir speaks of how his mother’s intellectualism shaped his life and made him who he is today. Entirely aside from viewpoints on Islam, Shakir seems to have a fascinating personal story — rising from poverty to study at some of the best universities in the U.S. and Muslim world, and now becoming a major Muslim American leader.

(UPDATE: transcript now available)

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When James Dobson told U.S. News & World Reports’ Dan Gilgoff he didn’t think GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson was “Christian,” that sparked a have-you-seen-Fred-Thompson-at-church contest and other blogosphere debates over Thompson’s religious beliefs. Though the former Tennessee senator was baptized in the

Church of

Christ, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, at a United Church of Christ, which, confusingly enough, has no relation to the

Church of


So what is the

Church of

? Some quick facts:

  1. Number of adherents in the United States: 1.3 million (2006)
  2. Other famous members: Lawyer and former independent counsel Kenneth Starr; Christian mega-author Max Lucado, and serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer
  3. Former U.S. presidents: James A. Garfield

To find out what the Churches of Christ are all about, ReligionWriter called up Kevin Youngblood, a professor in the

School of

Biblical Studies at Freed-Hardeman University in

Henderson, Tenn.

ReligionWriter: How would you describe the Churches of Christ in one sentence?

Kevin Youngblood: Churches of Christ are a group of Christians striving to be undenominational and as biblical as possible.

RW: So it’s a denomination that is undenominational?

Youngblood: Being undenominational is an ideal we strive toward. Every congregation is self-governing and self-supporting; we have no organizational structure beyond that. We lack the governing body that denominations typically have.

RW: Are the Churches of Christ related in any way to the United Church of Christ?

Youngblood: No, there is no connection whatsoever. We have completely separate histories.

RW: Are the Churches of Christ related to any other denominations?

Youngblood: The Churches of Christ grew out of the American Restoration Movement, which was part of the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s in the

United States. Several people who were disenchanted with their home denominations tried to form a group to be non-denominational. Up until the turn of the 20th century, those groups were united. But in 1901, they split off into two and later three streams: the Churches of Christ, the independent Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ.

RW: The Tennessean reported that Fred Thompson was baptized when he was nine or 10 years old. Is that a normal time to be baptized in the

Church of


Youngblood: We subscribe to the notion of “believers baptism.” A person is not a candidate for baptism until he or she can consciously place faith in Christ and express that faith in a verbal confession, saying, “I am trusting in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for my salvation.” We want it to be an individual choice, not something imposed on a child by parents. We don’t have a set age for baptism; it could be anywhere from eight or nine on up.

RW: What kind of role do women have in the

Church of

? Can they be ordained?

Youngblood: We don’t have formal ordination of any kind. If a person is called by God to preach, that is sufficient. But we don’t believe women are called to preach to a mixed assembly of men and women. The apostle Paul tells us there are two roles women are not permitted to fulfill: one is to serve as preacher or teacher for a mixed congregation, and the other is to serve as spiritual leader over a mixed congregation. Those two roles are exclusively male in the Churches of Christ. There might be a rare congregation breaking away from that, but most Churches of Christ would hold fairly strongly to that New Testament requirement.

RW: How does the church view divorce?

Youngblood: Our church is not entirely theologically uniform; on this issue, you’ll get different views depending on who you ask. In general, however, we believe there are legitimate reasons for getting divorced and illegitimate reasons. The real question is: What kind of divorce gives you the right to remarry? If a spouse is sexually unfaithful, that is a legitimate reason for divorce, and it allows for the right to remarry.

RW: Is there a criteria for membership in the church? Or if you’re baptized in the

Church of

are you then always a member?

Youngblood: There is no criteria for membership in the Churches of Christ beyond what the New Testament itself requires, which is simply faith in Christ and the expression of that faith in baptism. Now, if one chooses to depart from the lifestyle of the New Testament, then a church may withdraw fellowship, which is a way of saying, “You have chosen a lifestyle that is not biblical, and we want to warn you to bring your life back into conformity with New Testament teachings regarding ethics and personal holiness.”

RW: Does that actually happen? Is it common for fellowship to be withdrawn?

Youngblood: It’s hard to say how common it is. Every congregation is responsible for encouraging its members to live a holy life in accordance with biblical teaching. I do know of instances where it has taken place, but it’s always done with love and gentleness. It is not intended to castigate a person; it’s just an attempt to protect the other members of the congregation from the negative influence of those who claim to be Christian but don’t live a Christian lifestyle.

RW: What about abortion and gay marriage?

Youngblood: It’s fair to characterize members of Churches of Christ as being pro-life. We would be opposed to any kind of government-sanctioned same-sex marriage. Most ministers would refuse to conduct a marriage of that kind.

RW: What about having a gay person in the congregation?

Youngblood: It would depend by what you mean by having a “gay person.” We have people within the Churches of Christ who struggle with homosexuality, but the key word there is “struggling.” They are attempting to avoid living an actively homosexual lifestyle, since that would be an illicit form of sexual behavior according to both the Old and New Testaments. We are supportive of people who struggle with it. A person who wants to be actively involved in a homosexual lifestyle, in most churches of Christ, would be dis-fellowshipped, as we call it.

RW: Is it fair to describe members of the Churches of Christ as “evangelicals?”

Youngblood: I would be hesitant to embrace the label “evangelical” hook, line and sinker. We agree with evangelicals that the Bible is the inspired word of God, without error; in that sense we resemble evangelicals a great deal. But typically evangelicals don’t believe baptism is the point at which a person receives the forgiveness of sins and becomes a Christian and we do. In that point, we differ from evangelicals.

RW: Anything else you’d like people to know about the Churches of Christ?

Youngblood: Frequently in the media, the Churches of Christ are portrayed as a cult. That’s not even possible, given our non-hierarchical structure. In fact, I would say Churches of Christ are the furthest thing from a cult because we have an organizational structure that specially discourages a cult-like following. Our structure helps us avoid having dominant personalities in center stage.

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