- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sen. John McCain’s announcement this weekend that he’s been a practicing Baptist rather than an Episcopalian for the last 15 years may not garner any extra votes, but it’s certain to win him and his presidential campaign plenty of scrutiny.

As personal as religion is, it is also a staple of political campaigns — and this year more than ever, with Democrats seeking the “values voters” that helped Republicans in 2004, a Mormon candidate running on the Republican side and Republican Fred Thompson telling reporters last week he’s not a regular churchgoer and doesn’t plan to talk about religion on the stump.

“The volume of discussion about religion is much higher here in the 2008 cycle,” said John C. Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life, adding it’s particularly acute on the Republican side. “Some of the candidates don’t fit with the conservative Christian voting bloc comfortably, and that requires a lot of discussion.”

Yesterday, facing fire from some who say he appeared to be “pandering” for votes in South Carolina, Mr. McCain said his specific denomination isn’t important — “The most important thing is that I am a Christian,” he said.

That comes after a weekend in which, while campaigning in heavily Baptist South Carolina, he thought it important enough to correct an Associated Press reporter who asked about his Episcopal religion.

“It plays a role in my life. By the way, I’m not Episcopalian. I’m Baptist,” Mr. McCain said. “Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No.”

In response to follow-up questions, Mr. McCain said he has attended the North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona for more than 15 years, though he has never been baptized in that church. The ensuing criticism has been stiff.

“When I read that I said ‘You gotta be kidding,’ ” said David Jeffers, a lay preacher and author of “Understanding Evangelicals: A Guide to Jesusland,” who said by not being baptized by immersion, Mr. McCain is out of step with the church he attends in Arizona.

“It’s your words, sir, that’s why we’re contending with it,” he said, adding the issue is not whether Mr. McCain feels more comfortable as a Baptist. “We have a problem with you trying to say ‘I’m a Baptist’ while you’re in the middle of the heartland of Baptist country.”

Complicating Mr. McCain’s explanation is the fact that, despite his church attendance, he never bothered to correct the record during the last 15 years in several authoritative sources, including the Almanac of American Politics and the newly released CQ’s Politics in America 2008, both of which list him as Episcopalian.

His campaign didn’t return a message seeking comment yesterday.

Even as late as this June, he told a reporter for McClatchy newspapers that he still called himself an Episcopalian, though he found the message at his Baptist church “more fulfilling” than the Episcopal church.

On the other hand, Mr. Green’s organization, the Pew Forum, already listed Mr. McCain as Baptist on its Web site, citing his church attendance and his campaign’s response when they called to ask about his religion.

Mark J. Rozell, a professor at George Mason University who studies religion and politics, said he doubts many voters will be swayed one way or the other by Mr. McCain’s denomination because they are looking at policies as well as faith.

“Religious conservative voters in the Republican Party care first and foremost whether somebody is a faithful Christian who will act in public policy according to the positions of social conservatives,” he said.

That’s one reason why questions were raised after Mr. Thompson said he attends church when visiting Tennessee, but said he doesn’t “attend regularly” when at home in Virginia.

Another case is Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose Mormonism has become a sore issue among some evangelical Christians. He consistently must answer questions about his religion’s beliefs and their effect on him as a statesman.

On the Democratic side, religion has received far more attention than usual for a primary, with the top candidates even having taken part in a televised faith and values forum with major religious leaders earlier this year.

“Democrats have discovered the faith factor in a really big way, and have been much more overt in expressing their religiousity, the importance of their religion to their public lives, and it’s not simply a private matter,” Mr. Rozell said.

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