- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

LONDONDERRY, N.H. — The Rev. Wesley Palmer of the Londonderry United Methodist Church posed an unusual — but timely — question to his parishioners during the 11 a.m. service yesterday.

“Are there any presidential candidates with us today?”

He was half-kidding, but with the New Hampshire presidential primary looming, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that a candidate — or at least someone connected to tomorrow’s event — could be visiting the historic white clapboard church, given the onslaught of pundits, supporters and journalists who have arrived here en masse.

As the nation’s political eyes are focused on the Granite State, candidates here face a different landscape than the open arms of Iowa. Faith, New England-style, is in full view, with churches as ubiquitous as convenience stores across the small, bucolic towns.

Unlike the caucuses of Iowa, where Republican candidates, at least, garnered major support from evangelical voters, New Englanders see it differently when it comes to selecting a president.

“In this area, you don’t really mix religion with politics,” said Pavel Payano, 22, a Lawrence, Mass. resident, who has come to New Hampshire to campaign for Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. He stood in the shadows of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, leading a group of about a dozen supporters in chanting to motorists along Nashua’s Main Street.

“I’m a very religious person,” said Mr. Payano, a native of the Dominican Republic. “When I was first looking at Obama as a candidate, I wanted to know if he stood for the basic principles of my religion, not if he was the same faith.”

Mr. Payano and others lined the main drag through town. It’s a busy downtown, with independent shops and church steeples poking through the gray wintry skies.

Every month, parishioners at Nashua’s Main Street United Methodist Church invite locals in for a Saturday night bean supper. They don’t call it dinner, and you don’t have to be a member to eat. It’s a heavily attended social affair, but inside, they are not immune from the political crush that’s right outside their doorstep.

Church member Phyllis Appler, 60, led diners to tables.

“I think that people want someone who cares about his or her religious beliefs,” said Mrs. Appler about the candidates. “You would hate to think that you had a leader of our country who did not have a strong faith. I’m just not sure it if matters it if matches their own.”

Carol Berry of Nashua, who was meeting friends for dinner, said faith is important but religion shouldn’t guide someone in the election booth.

“It’s separate,” she said. “Whoever we elect should believe in God, but as long as you believe, it doesn’t matter which faith.”

Claude Dumais, a 71-year-old local Catholic said candidates should “talk about what you are going to do for the country — not about religion.”

He can understand the following of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican contender and former Baptist minister who has garnered support because of his forthright convictions. As a Northerner, however, he said the evangelical influence is not as strong.

“This religious stuff, I think it hurts politics,” he said.

Heather West, bracing the icy wind as she climbs the steps at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Nashua’s Spring Street, agreed.

“I think a lot of people here have a lot of faith, whatever faith that is,” said the mother of two who has lived around the world with her military husband.

“I think people here make decisions on fact, not on religion,” said Mrs. West 38, as she made her way to Saturday afternoon Mass.

In the back room on Sunday morning in Londonderry, about 20 minutes from Nashua, Sarah Hamilton, 32, slips out of her winter coat and into a midnight-blue robe. She loves to sing, and has come in early to the United Methodist Church for a last-minute run-through with her 10-member choir.

“The existence of faith is an indication of character,” she said. “However, bringing a religious denomination into the election is a turnoff to me as a voter. I think while faith is important, it doesn’t necessarily need to be front and center in an election.”

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