Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
02/04/2008 - From Mitt Romney's December speech on religion in American politics to Barack Obama's efforts this month to label himself a "committed Christian," the personal faith of candidates has played a significant role in the 2008 campaign. Pew Forum Senior Fellow John Green answered questions about the history of faith in presidential politics, campaign efforts to religiously define candidates and how the faith factor might impact Super Tuesday.
John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Mark O'Keefe, Associate Director, Web Publishing, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Historically, has strong personal faith been an asset to presidential candidates?
Historically, strong personal faith has often been an asset, particularly if a candidate was a member of what was perceived as a "mainstream" faith. Throughout most of American history, these mainstream faiths were various kinds of Protestantism. For candidates whose religion was perceived to be outside of the mainstream, personal faith has been more of a detriment than an asset.
Perhaps the most famous examples are Roman Catholic candidates. By the late 19th century, Catholics were a large part of the American population. But many Protestants viewed Catholics with a great deal of suspicion, making it very difficult for Catholics to run for president. In fact, only one Catholic has successfully run for the White House, and that's John F. Kennedy.
Has the situation changed in recent times?
Yes, it has. In the last 30 years or so, religious affiliation has become somewhat less important to voters and the religiosity of a candidate has become more important. Certainly candidates have talked more about their faith during this time period. A good example is Jimmy Carter in 1976 who talked about being a born-again Christian. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 also talked a good bit about their faith and, of course, so did George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. These examples suggest that candidates' personal faith can help them attract voters.
Read the full transcript Personal Faith and Candidate Image in the 2008 Campaign on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.