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Each of the presidential candidates has been caught off guard by accusations leveled against their religious connections.

While Barack Obama continues to distance himself from the "incendiary language" of his pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, John McCain has renounced anti-Catholic comments made by Texas pastor John Hagee, who endorsed McCain in late February. McCain has also come under criticism for calling the Rev. Rod Parsley, who endorses total war against Islam, his "spiritual guide." Meanwhile, political essayist Barbara Ehrenreich and others have criticized Hillary Clinton for her affiliation with the Fellowship Foundation's National Prayer Breakfast.

"Neither Obama, McCain, or Clinton expected they would be criticized on this basis," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "They had not thought these issues would be controversial."

Presidential hopefuls took note after President Bush's narrow reelection in 2004, which was credited largely to his appeal among people of faith. However, as this election's candidates have emphasized their personal beliefs and religious connections in an attempt to influence voters, they've found that it has opened them up to new criticisms, said Green.

"One of the reasons religious appeals are effective is because many Americans care deeply about their faith," he said. "But they also have doubts about other people's faith. Because they care about religion, they are concerned if they hear things they don't agree with."

In a twist not seen in recent presidential campaigns, candidates have been held accountable not just for their own religious views, but also for the views of those with whom they associate.

"Obama and Clinton are making ...

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June 2008

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