Religion's role at the polls

Religion looms large in the 2008 presidential election.

It hasn't played such a prominent role in a U.S. election since 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic elected president.

Hardly a day passes without a candidate being asked a question about his faith. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon who is seeking the Republican nomination, is called upon repeatedly to defend his church and its teachings, some viewed as heresy by Christians. Some activists are pressing Romney to distance himself from his church. Romney says that's not going to happen.

Romney is not alone.

All of the presidential hopefuls -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- are being grilled about their religious beliefs. Some seem eager to talk about their faith as they actively court religious voters. Others play down the issue.

But voters more than ever want to know about a candidate's faith, and candidates seem more willing to talk about it.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, emphasizes her Methodist upbringing, saying her faith helped save her marriage.

U.S. Barack Obama, D-Ill., frequently quotes Scripture on the stump and proclaims a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ. He often invites reporters to go to church with him on Sundays as he did on a recent visit to Columbia. He took his guests to First Baptist, a predominantly white congregation, and to Brookland Baptist, a predominantly black church.

Pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times there is more mixing of religion and politics than there was in the late 1960s. "As a consequence, people scrutinize Mormonism -- or any religion -- more closely," he said.

The growing influence of the Christian right has had a huge impact on politics in the South. It has produced a steady flow of conservative Christians into the GOP.

"When the South changed, it brought the evangelicals with it," Kohut said.

Recently, 2,000 activists gathered in Washington to weigh their political options for the coming election. The occasion was the Voters Value Summit. Many expressed deep discomfort with the Republican Party's two front-runners -- Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Romney presented himself as the anti-abortion, pro-family, pro-religion contender.

Giuliani implored religious and social conservatives to look beyond his differences with them over abortion and other issues as he sought to allay their fears that his nomination would mean the abandonment of the GOP's core principles.

Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, whose group organized the weekend summit, predicts religious leaders and activists will have a tremendous impact on the election once they narrow down their choices for president.

Giuliani, a Roman Catholic, was greeted with a certain amount of skepticism. But he assured the audience of predominantly Protestant activists that they had "absolutely nothing to fear" from him. Giuliani maintained he and social conservatives have more areas of agreement than disagreement.

However, the evangelical community stands as the most significant obstacle to Giuliani's hope of becoming president. His advisers saw the speech as a critical opportunity for Giuliani to begin to build a bond of mutual respect with one of the most important parts of the Republican coalition.

On the Democratic side, Obama has taken his campaign on "Faith and Family" to South Carolina's grass-roots. The purpose of the effort is to introduce S.C voters to the way Obama's family life and Christian faith have shaped his values, and to offer people an opportunity to talk about how they live their faith outside the church, said Joshua DuBois, Obama's national religious affairs director.

The Obama campaign has wrapped up its "40 Days of Faith and Family" forums with a star-studded gospel music concert tour of the state.

"This is another example of how Barack Obama is defying conventional wisdom about how politics is done and giving new meaning to meeting people at the grass-roots level ... and engaging people of faith in an unprecedented way," DuBois said.