“It’s very tempting but a bit dangerous to over-interpret what happened,” said Luis Lugo, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “Clearly Obama improved across all religious groups, but the economy just overwhelmed every other issue.”
Still, the 2008 campaign was remarkable for the ways religion — or religious figures — played such a prominent role. Obama was forced to sever ties with his fiery pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, for sermons that were deemed racist, anti-American and at times downright bizarre. McCain, in turn, was forced to return the endorsements of Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee and Ohio’s Rod Parsley.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson tried to play kingmaker by first saying he would not vote for McCain “under any circumstances” and later calling the Palin pick “God’s answer” to prayer. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the candidate who proved most popular among religious conservatives and who won the Iowa Republican caucuses in January, failed to gain traction despite ads that dubbed him a “Christian leader.”
Obama and Biden both faced strong opposition from Catholic leaders over their support of abortion rights. One American cardinal, James Stafford, called Obama’s election “apocalyptic” and a South Carolina Catholic priest told Obama supporters to head to confession before receiving Communion.
All of that, Lugo said, shows that voters want their politicians to be at least somewhat religious — but prefer to make up their own minds, without the interference of politically outspoken clergy.