The Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have published a report that confirms my suspicions about the use of religion on the campaign trail. The study found that we are in the midst of an election for a Pastor-in-Chief rather than a Commander-in-Chief.

An analysis of over 13,000 news stories from January 2007 through April 2008 revealed that religion is playing a disproportionate role in this election.  Religion accounted for roughly ten percent of all stories that did not focus on political strategy or tactics.  By comparison, foreign policy issues garnered 14 percent of these stories, and stories about race and gender only made up 11 percent.

The United States is in the midst of two wars, one of which is costing our taxpayers $6 billion every month.  Terrorism represents the greatest foreign policy crisis of our generation.  At the same time, American society is being transformed as Senators Clinton and Obama challenged traditional stereotypes of who is best fit to be president.  And despite these profound changes and challenges, religion is receiving almost as attention in the media as foreign policy and race/gender issues.  And the scary thing is that George W. Bush, who revolutionized using religion for partisan gain, isn’t even on the ballot.

There is much blame to go around that explains this troubling trend.  The presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle were more willing than ever to seek the endorsement of religious leaders, incorporate religious rhetoric into their speeches, and promote their religious affiliation as a misguided proxy for sound judgment and clear vision. 

Both Senators McCain and Obama had some buyer’s remorse after seeking the support of controversial clergy. But candidates cannot have it both ways. They cannot continue to use clergy for political gain and then discard them when it no longer fits their agenda.

The media deserve much of the blame as well.  Last summer, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien asked Senator John Edwards to name his biggest sin.  Multiple debate moderators asked various candidates to name their favorite Bible story. 

These types of questions have no bearing over a candidate’s ability to serve as president.  The media are the staunchest supporters of the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and press, yet it appears they have not read Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits imposing a religious test for public office.

The problem is not that religion is being incorporated into the presidential campaign.  Rather the problem is that religion is being used as a divisive tool instead of a unifying power.  The candidates need be less concerned with appearing “holier than thou” and focus instead on explaining the role their values play in their political worldview.  The media needs to stop asking irrelevant (and irreverent) questions about the candidates’ religion and start asking the candidates to outline their views on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. 

If we can nurture a more positive relationship between religion and politics, a survey result like this one would be encouraging rather than lamentable.

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