What do George W. Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama have in common?
All three are Christians who have discussed their faith openly during their presidential campaigns and have expressed support for faith-based initiatives in government. But many religious voters still question the role that faith should play in politics.
"There are lots of people who consider themselves Christians that I would not want to see sitting in the White House," said Paula McClain, a professor of political science and an Episcopalian, in a forum last week entitled "Can a Good Christian Be a Good President?: A Panel Discussion on Politics and Faith."
It is difficult to be a good Christian, let alone a good president, said Peter Feaver, professor of political science, who has held positions under both the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, during the Oct. 1 panel. Feaver, who said he identifies as an "evangelical Christian as it is popularly understood," noted that polls show white evangelicals overwhelmingly support Republican McCain in the upcoming presidential election, despite projections that Democrat Obama's Christianity would allow him to cut into this traditionally conservative demographic.
"Evangelicals care about pro-life issues and this naturally gravitates them to the Republican party, but they also care very much about what might be called global stewardship issues: the environment and climate change, genocide in Darfur, human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Burma," Feaver wrote in an e-mail. "A Democratic ticket with a less extreme position on abortion and a less sneering attitude towards white evangelicals might make substantial headway with this group."
Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells, another panel participant, said many Christian topics are not appropriate for political discourse.
"The church should be priest and prophet," he said. "The problem comes when the church tries be king. When it has tried to be king, it has failed."
Although he said he does not publicly endorse candidates for public office, Pastor Mel Williams of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham said faith can have moral and political implications.
"I said to my congregation on Sunday that I hope our vote for President will be made not from some superficial whim, but from our deep self, our true self which comes from our faith," he wrote in an e-mail.
Students from other faiths agreed that their beliefs influenced their politics, but said it would not be the deciding factor in their voting choices.
Although most Muslims supported Bush in the 2000 presidential election, sophomore Sobia Shariff, publicity/communications chair for the Muslim Students Association, noted that the War on Terror may have isolated many Islamic voters, because she felt Bush sometimes characterized the terror as "Islamic."
"I don't think it's so much faith but my perception of the character of the two candidates," said SherAli Tareen, a fourth-year graduate student religion.
Tareen, who is a Muslim and a McCain supporter, he said he had not been offended by Obama's strong response to rumors circulating that he was Muslim.
"To be clear, Sen. Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim and is a committed Christian," Obama spokesperson Robert Gibbs said in a Jan. 24 statement.
Some Muslims criticized the statement for being too emphatic and casting the Islamic faith as a political liability.
"One has to be realist in realizing that would have to be best for his campaign," Tareen said.
Participants at the Oct. 1 panel agreed that it would be difficult for a non-religious candidate to be elected president.
Wells, however, said a non-religious leader "may be even better."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.