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Greeting the Tuskeegee Airmen (Photo: Pete Souza)

It's a presidential election season, and Republicans are once again turning President Obama's faith into a political issue. But will their strategy work? History and hypocrisy suggest that the political gamesmanship won't succeed.

Franklin Graham, son of the elder evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, weighed in on the president's religion. On MSNBC's Morning Joe, Graham expressed doubts about Obama (and Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon) being a Christian.

"I think the best thing for a person is to ask you directly, so I think people have to ask Barack Obama," Graham said. "He's come out saying that he's a Christian, so I think the question is 'What is a Christian?'" Graham also said that "Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama," adding that "under President Obama, the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries."


Furthermore, Graham called the president a "son of Islam" because his father was a Muslim. According to Graham, Obama's faith is one of expediency, a political calculation. He argues that the president started attending church in Chicago as a prerequisite for working with community groups.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum dismissed the president's politics as coming from "some phony theology."

"It's not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs," Santorum said. "It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."

Earlier this week on Fox News, Santorum brought up the president's ties to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery, politically-charged sermons about 9/11 and U.S. foreign policy created controversy outside of the black community, particularly among those who have never attended a black church.

"Look, he went to Reverend Wright's church for 20 years," Santorum said in a discussion with Sean Hannity. "I mean, now you can question what kind of theology Reverend Wright has, but it's a Christian church." Some political observers characterized Obama's decision to sever ties with Wright during the 2008 campaign as one of political expediency.

During the 2008 campaign, when Obama ran against Arizona Senator John McCain, Santorum said that Satan was attacking America.

And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, also a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, claimed that President Obama "fought against religion" and wanted to replace faith with a "secular" agenda. Romney decried as an infringement on religious liberty the Obama administration's requirement that employers such as the Catholic church provide coverage for contraception.

"Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda -- they have fought against religion," Romney added.

Santorum and Romney are courting the Christian conservative base of the Republican Party. A number of polls in 2010 found that 31 to 46 percent of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, and as many as 51 percent believe that he was not born in America. So, their unhinged statements appeal to GOP white evangelical voters, who may be inclined to believe that America is a Christian nation and frown upon the First Amendment separation of church and state. And yet, as the Republicans take the president to task on the sincerity of his faith, the evidence suggests that they are guilty of changing their own religious views, taking more strident positions for political gain.

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Despite his hard-right stance on abortion and contraception, Romney is profiting from his investments in pharmaceutical companies that manufacture birth control medications. In 2005, Governor Romney required all hospitals in Massachusetts to provide emergency contraceptionto rape victims -- without an exception for Catholic hospitals. Moreover, he viewed the birth control mandate in economic terms, not moral or religious terms, and never tried to eliminate it.

Santorum's wife Karen once had a six-year relationship with an abortion provider 40 years her senior -- the doctor who delivered her as a baby. The Santorums oppose contraception, and even in cases of rape or incest, abortion. Furthermore, Santorum, who supports creationism and criticizes Obama for not governing on Biblical principles, is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, which favors the teaching of evolution.

Newt Gingrich recently declared that President Obama voted in support of infanticide and has declared war on religion. Gingrich -- who called President Clinton a misogynist and voted to impeach him for having a sexual affair in the White House -- has had a history of infidelity, three marriages and two divorces.

david love

The politicization of religion by U.S. presidents is nothing new. Just as Romney must downplay his Mormon faith when courting evangelicals, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy downplayed his Catholicism. Kennedy faced anti-Catholic Protestants who were concerned that the Church would control his decisions. In 1960, he made a religion speech to address the concerns and turned things around to his advantage.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him," Kennedy said.

Reagan, who rarely attended church, courted the evangelical vote, which led to the rise of the Christian Right in the GOP.

Bill Clinton was able to sound like an African-American in a black church. And he understood the language of white Southern Baptists, though many may have disagreed with his policies.

Religion played a large role in the presidency of George W. Bush, and he was able to use religion to win over evangelicals. In a 1999 debate, Bush named Christ as the philosopher that had most influenced his life.

Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." In a country which prohibits the government's establishment of religion and allows people to practice -- or not -- as they please, one's faith should not matter. Then again, we're talking about the world of presidential politics.

Yet, there is evidence that in the end, the religious posturing by politicians is a zero-sum game of little concern to the voters.

Jimmy Carter, whose public expression of his faith as a born-again Christian helped him to win the presidency, thinks that religion and politics have become too cozy. The former president warns that religion is overemphasized in the Republican primaries.

"They know that's what the public who will vote in the Republican primaries want to hear," Carter said. "In the long run, most people will back off when they get ready to actually choose a president in the general election and say, 'You know what the person's faith might be, whether its Catholic, Jewish, Protestant or Mormon or whatever, it's not going to affect my vote nearly as much as the basic moral character, the basic principles put forward by the potential president.'"

David A. Love

A poll taken last September supports Carter's assertions. Only 16 percent of people are more likely to vote for a candidate who shares their religious beliefs.

David A. Love
The Grio