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Religion was so in the foreground in the 2008 presidential race that for their first appearance on the same stage after their party conventions, Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., agreed to an event at a church where they would be interviewed by a minister.

The Rev. Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in California, asked the candidates what faith in Jesus meant to them and at what point a baby gains human rights.

For the latter question, McCain answered, “At the moment of conception.” Obama joked that the question was “above my pay grade,” then went on to explain the moral thinking behind his support for abortion rights. Obama soon after apologized for the way he started his answer, saying he was too flip.

“These folks are not professional theologians and, except in a few cases like Huckabee, they haven’t been to seminary,” said Gary Smith, author of “Faith & the Presidency” and a historian at Grove City College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP presidential hopeful, is a Southern Baptist minister.

“Most of them haven’t had more education about the relationship between Christianity and politics than the average person on the street,” Smith said. “While they have their own personal faith, it isn’t usually well informed by history and theology.”

Voters have started pushing for specifics because they no longer consider belief separate from action and faith unrelated to policymaking, said Kathleen Flake, who specializes in American religious history at Vanderbilt University. The nation’s Catholic bishops, more vocal than ever on the duty of Catholic lawmakers to follow church teaching, underscored that way of thinking. Bishops have said repeatedly that a true Catholic cannot support any policy that allows abortion.

“The voting public no longer believes, as they did as late as the 1950s, that religion was about what you thought and not what you did,” Flake said.

The trend started with Democrat Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 said at a campaign event that he was a born-again Christian.

Although Carter’s liberal-leaning policies would ultimately alienate many evangelicals, his declaration sparked Christian conservative involvement in politics and set the stage for deeper scrutiny of candidates’ faith. Politicians and their strategists began preparing a standard response to what became known as the “born-again question,” which was asked not only in private meetings with Christian conservatives, but also in presidential debates.

Doug Wead, an adviser on evangelicals to the presidential campaign of Republican George H.W. Bush, recalled a meeting between the then-vice president and a group of televangelists, who asked what Bush would say if he “were to appear suddenly at the Pearly Gates,” and St. Peter asked why the politician should be allowed into heaven.

Bush, a mainline Protestant, answered, “I would tell him I’m a good person. I tried my best to do the right things,” Wead said.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no,’” said Wead. Evangelicals don’t believe salvation can be earned. They would expect true Christians to say they would enter heaven because Jesus died for their sins and they accept Christ as savior.

Today, Wead advises Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, a libertarian and Texas congressman. Paul has issued a statement of faith saying that he was raised as a Christian and accepts Christ as his personal savior.

For the 2012 race, analysts predict that Romney will eventually have to talk about how his faith would influence the way he governs.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a 2012 contender, is perhaps the first presidential candidate claiming the “spiritual, not religious” mantle.

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