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Faith Is Not a Freak Show

Let's make sure we learn the right lessons from the primary season.

In the days after George W. Bush's 2004 reelection, political analysts highlighted the Democratic Party's failure to speak the language of faith in a way that resonated with American voters, particularly Protestant evangelicals. This disconnect was partly due to substantial differences on hot-button social issues, but more from the perception that the Democratic Party was indifferent or hostile to genuine, serious, heartfelt religion. Pundits argued that candidates who ignored religion did so at their own peril. So Democratic strategists began "finding" or "recovering" faith, while Republicans simply tried to keep it.

It was natural, then, for candidates' religion to become a major theme this primary season. From Mitt Romney's Mormonism to Barack Obama's African American Christianity, each candidate's faith was proclaimed in stump speeches or examined by the press. But instead of providing the promised boost, religion became a liability, and candidates have expended as much energy divorcing themselves from religious connections as they have making them. What happened?

This year's primaries suggest a new truism about American political campaigning: While generic religiosity brings life, particular religious connections risk political death—or serious injury. Religious particularity arguably killed Romney's campaign. At the very least, it didn't help his cause. The same could be said of Mike Huckabee. While his evangelical pedigree as a Southern Baptist minister appealed to some voters, it scared even more. And the persistence and potency of the Jeremiah Wright controversy put Obama's campaign in the ER. Amputation was the only remedy. Even John McCain, who is generally mum on religion, had to sever himself from pastors ...

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