Where the candidates kneel

politics get religiousIn case you were wondering, the Associated Press reports that presidential aspirants include seven Roman Catholics, three Methodists, three Baptists, one Episcopalian, one Presbyterian, one Mormon and one who is "simply" a Christian. With religion being an increasingly frequent topic in national politics these days, I'm starting to wonder whether a candidate's religious affiliation will join party affiliation and locality after the candidate's name. OK, that is probably not going to be considered by the editors of The Associated Press Stylebook. Do you readers think this survey is atypical of the AP? And are reporters focusing more on candidates' religion this year than in previous elections?

Fortunately the AP did much more with the story, and in an accompanying article it sorted through some of the issues coming up in the next election:

Lately it seems all the leading presidential candidates are discussing their religious and moral beliefs -- even when they would rather not.

Indeed, seven years after George W. Bush won the presidency in part with a direct appeal to conservative religious voters -- even saying during a debate that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher -- the personal faith of candidates for the 2008 election has become a very public part of the presidential campaign.

Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have hired strategists to focus on reaching religious voters. Obama's campaign holds a weekly conference call with key supporters in early primary and caucus states whose role is to spread the candidate's message to religious leaders and opinionmakers and report their concerns to the campaign.

There is so much more that could have been done with this story, and maybe AP has plans to look closer at what the candidates believe. There are certainly some compelling religion stories among these candidates beyond the frequent articles on Mitt Romney's Mormonism and Democratic candidates' attempts to get religion.

For example, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Methodist, is looking for a new church near his new house. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is a member of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Cleveland who attends services "not often," according to the AP. And Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., a Catholic, attends services "when his schedule permits."

Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor (Catholic), Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. (Catholic), and Romney are the only candidates who said they attend services weekly, regardless of their travel schedules. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., on the other hand, tries to attend Mass daily. When he's in Kansas, he also attends Topeka Bible Church with his family. As a friend asked, how does he square that theologically?

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's answer that he is a Catholic, but his "personal relationship with God is private and between him and God," is somewhat refreshing. But since when did Giuliani ever keep his faith to himself? Reporters shouldn't allow candidates to get away with lame answers that are inconsistent with the candidate's past remarks.

But that raises one of the difficult challenges of covering religious and politics. Just how much can you press on public figures on their private faith?

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