Faith in Iowa, presidential style

iowa sunsetFor political junkies like myself, tonight's Iowa caucuses is kind of like the first day of Christmas. Finally, after so much waiting, we finally get to find out what is in those political Christmas presents. It has been the job of journalists to predict the contents of those boxes and starting tonight, reporters get to tell us the results. Since this happens to be the most exciting and most unpredictable election in decades, political journalists and commentators are spinning out dozens of compelling stories amongst the many candidates.

There are many religion-related stories playing out in Iowa today, and it will be interesting to see if any of these story lines managed to break through the clutter. The one non-story at this point is whether or not there is a pew gap factor for the candidates vying for the Democratic Party's nomination. Reporters with plenty of stories to tell, like the ones in Iowa today, generally don't dig that hard for stories that are not there, but in this case if religion is not an issue in tonight's caucuses that is a story worth telling.

Still, we can hope.

Part of the story about the religious right will come down to numbers. Among the GetReligionistas, tmatt is predicting, and I agree, that some of the newscasts will lead with the percentage of evangelicals who vote for Huckabee versus Romney. The tricky part of this is how do you define an evangelical caucus voter, and how accurate are the exit polls?

Another story that is being told is Mitt Romney's struggle. For a person who has spent months of campaigning and millions of dollars on Iowa, the Mike Huckabee story is writing a substantial chapter in the relationship between the religious right and the Republican Party.

Tonight is a crucial part of that story. Carrie Sheffield of The American Spectator says Romney's struggles are centered on his Mormon faith. If Romney fails to meet expectation, it will be interesting to see if his faith is the dominant story line.

On the flipside of this story is how Romney's faith is helping him. Here is The Dallas Morning News:

DES MOINES, Iowa -- More than a few politicos have viewed Mitt Romney's Mormon faith as a political liability detracting from his fight for the Republican presidential nomination.

But if Mr. Romney wins today's Iowa caucuses, he may have members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to thank.

Iowa's Mormon population is small -- more than 22,500 members of all ages, according to church statistics. But they are notably politically active, and many are backing Mr. Romney. That is potentially significant with the tight race in Iowa, as polls indicate Mr. Romney effectively running even with Mike Huckabee for the lead.

On a related note, John McCain's resurrection is related in a big way to the rise of Huckabee. Remember Sam Brownback? He was the original favorite son of the evangelicals who had a few tangles with Huckabee. His endorsement of McCain upon his withdrawal from the presidential race gave McCain a chance to essentially not come in near last place in Iowa tonight. Has McCain become the alternative for conservative evangelicals who don't have um, faith, in Huckabee? He's leading in national polls, and he doesn't have to technically win Iowa to be successful tonight.

The last thing to consider is what should be a non-story, but unfortunately, thanks to a fewjournalists lacking discernment, remains in the news. The story is hardly worth mentioning because discussing it only re-enforces the problem. (Audible sigh) I am, of course, referring to the "Barack Obama Isn't a Muslim" story. There are plenty of reports about how Obama's international background and family heritage could help him in the White House, but there are an high number of troubling reports of people still trying to figure out whether or not Obama is a Christian.

This is rather sad, and there is no really good way for journalists to cover the story without furthering the problem. The more someone says that Obama is not a Muslim (OK, I just said it a second time) the more it re-enforces the issue. It is akin to running an unsubstantiated story about a local political and saying in a big headline that he or she is not a criminal.

Photo of Iowa sunset used under a Creative Commons license.

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