The Megachurch Primaries
South Carolina pastor Ron Carpenter was a popular guy as the 2008 presidential candidates geared up for the primaries. After he gave seven minutes of pulpit time in October to Sen. Barack Obama to talk about his faith, other campaigns began calling the megachurch pastor, asking for equal time.
For Carpenter, it wasn't easy to determine where to draw the line for his Greenville, South Carolina, congregation, which sits in key territory for the early primaries. He decided elected officials could speak about their faith in the pulpit, but not candidates who are not in office.
"I'm not willing to open up the floodgates and let somebody different in here every Sunday," said Carpenter. "I'm not foolish, I know why they're here. I'm not going to subject the church just to political pandering."
Carpenter had been surprised when Obama's campaign notified him that the Democratic candidate would worship in his church. Candidates, especially Democratic ones, had long appeared in African American churches, but Redemption World Outreach Center is a multiracial Pentecostal church with mostly white leadership.
Whether or not candidates worship in his 8,000-member church, Carpenter is pleased that political candidates want to talk about their Christian faith.
"The problem is, who can say that it's genuine or whether it's just a ploy to get votes?" Carpenter said. "I think the jury is out on that."
Many political scientists attributed President Bush's successful reelection to the 78 percent of white evangelicals who voted for him, compared to the 21 percent who voted for Sen. John Kerry. "There was kind of a wake-up call that we don't talk about those things," said Mike McCurry, former press secretary for Bill Clinton. "In the course of the last two and a half decades with the Democrats, we lost our vocabulary."
Now many of the campaigns have someone on staff who directs religious outreach. But they have a tough job ahead; like the rest of the electorate, evangelical voting patterns may be difficult to predict.
Some voters will look for an electable candidate who will provide evangelicals with the greatest access, argues Corwin Smidt, executive director of the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin College. Others will only want a candidate who will pass policies that are consistent with their views.
"If you're wanting access, there's no guarantee that your voice will be heeded," Smidt said. "If you are voting for someone who has no chance of being elected, you've lost the chance of being heard. There's a risk in both directions."
The staff in charge of religious outreach will have to figure out the best sell: highlight the values religious voters feel most strongly about, make connections to the candidate's faith, or foster relationships with religious leaders.
Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, thinks that although certain candidates have tried to talk about faith and have met with religious leaders, evangelicals will eventually vote for the candidate who most reflects their views.
"At the end of the day, voters are going to be asking not, Who have I seen you in pictures with? but, Where do you stand on the issues?" Cromartie said. "They've gone and hired these spiritual gurus to play to a constituency that they've never made inroads with. You won't get those inroads unless you change those policies."
Sidling Up and Saddling Up
Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both appeared at megachurch pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California for separate AIDS conferences, in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Both senators spoke about the connection between Christian faith and the fight against AIDS.