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Professor Discusses Role of Religion in Election Politics

This past weekend, the presumptive presidential nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties spoke at a forum at Saddleback Church. KSMU's Missy Shelton recently spoke with Dr. John Schmalzbauer about how religion is becoming such a prominent part of election year politics. Schmalzbauer holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Endowed Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University.

Shelton: What role is religion playing in the campaigns of the two presidential candidates so far?

Schmalzbauer: It's playing a huge role. Never before have we seen the candidates appear together at a mega church or any church before any of the presidential debates between the two presumptive nominees. This has never happen. Even if you go back to the primary season, religion has played an enormous role. Barack Obama has been courting evangelicals since 2006 when he spoke to the "Call to Renewal Conference" sponsored by Sojourner's magazine. John McCain has warmed up to evangelicals since his 2000 run when he distances himself from Falwell and Robertson, calling them agents of intolerance. Before Jerry Falwell died, John McCain managed to be a commencement speaker at Falwell's Liberty University and has really been touting his strong record of being against abortion to evangelicals. So I think both of them are really engaged in religion in a way I don't think we've seen, especially in the democrat party.

Shelton: While I'm sure some people of faith welcome the attention that the presidential candidates are giving to religious institutions, are there some people of faith who are uncomfortable with mixing religion and politics?

Schmalzbauer: I have been looking at some blogs and commentary after the Saddleback forum where the two candidates appeared at this church and I think actually a lot of American Catholics may be uncomfortable with this and other people of faith who are part of traditions where you don't necessarily wear it on your sleeve in quite the same way American evangelicals do. Catholics are proud of their religious beliefs but there isn't this tradition of going out and evangelizing in quite the same public way.

Shelton: And what does this infusion of religion in politics mean for people who do not subscribe to any religious belief system?

Schmalzbauer: Yeah, I have noticed some comments on some liberal and progressive blogs and the web pages of magazines where secular folks in the Democratic Party have been kind of uncomfortable about Barack Obama talking a bout Christianity and his faith. I guess the thing is is that secular progressives don't really have another place to go besides the Democratic Party. So, I think there will be some complaining but I don't think much will come of it.

Shelton: So, is this just a taste of what's to come in terms of the two presidential candidates discussing and embracing religion?

Schmalzbauer: I think you're going to see it at the conventions. I've already looked at what's going to happen at the Democratic National Convention. Republican convention, I don't think they've sent out those press releases yet or at least it's not been widely reported. But at the Democratic Convention, the opening prayer and another benediction are going to be done by evangelicals. Reverend Joel Hunter who is the pastor of a Florida mega-church and who was briefly president of the Christian Coalition will be praying at the Democratic Convention. So will Cameron Strang, the editor of Relevant magazine, a kind of self-consciously hip magazine aimed at young evangelicals that has a lot about music. I don't think we've seen this kind of thing recently. It will be interesting what the Republicans do up in St. Paul. I'm sure there will be a lot of public religion at the Republican Convention too.

Shelton: I've been speaking with Dr. John Schmalzbauer. He holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Endowed Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University.