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I was amazed at what I heard on the radio on the morning after the Iowa caucuses. Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama, arguably the two most overtly religious candidates, had both come in first.

Because a lot of folks fret about the role of religion in politics, I talked to three professors at two universities in River Forest about the religious issues in the upcoming Feb. 5 primary. Following is a summary of the advice they gave me.

To the secular fundamentalists

By secular fundamentalists I mean people who want to purge religion from politics and religious language from presidential campaigns.

1. It ain’t gonna happen. Trying to remove God and God talk from stump speeches is like trying to remove the warp from the woof in the fabric your shirt is made of. “You can’t separate religion and politics,” Bob Hayes, professor of history, political science and philosophy at Concordia University, said, “because what drives people politically are their values and their opinions and their beliefs.”

2. Every issue is religious. For those who view life through the lens of religion, every problem we face has a spiritual aspect. Even for those who call themselves secular their values might have more of a religious origin than they realize. Chris Colmo, a professor of political science at Dominican University, argues that “America very much lives off of its religious capital. Many Americans like to think of ourselves as a secular nation, but many of the values they hold really have a religious origin.”

3. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t let the use of God talk by some of the candidates distract you from what they’ve actually done in terms of specific policy. You might not resonate to their language, but that doesn’t mean you won’t agree with their politics. Learn to be bi-lingual. In other words, if you want to get supporters from the Evangelical camp for your version of immigration reform, learn to speak God talk, because that’s the language to which those folks respond.

4. Character does count. Colmo said that for all those who have occupied the Oval Office, the presidency has been “a very grueling test of their own perseverance and commitment.”

To the religious fundamentalists

By religious fundamentalists I mean people who want every issue to be framed in biblical terms.

  1. We are not a Christian nation. In some ways we never have been. Many of the founding fathers were Deists who could not, in good conscience, confess faith in the Trinity. And, we’re becoming more pluralistic every day.
  2. Actions speak louder than words. Hugh McElwain, a professor in Dominican’s department of theology, warns that you may be sympathetic to candidates who speak your language in terms of religious belief only to discover that when they translate those beliefs into policy the result is far different than what you expected.
    “Ronald Reagan was cutting back on all the social things, and catsup became the vegetable they got at their school lunch. What are those people thinking,” Hayes fumed. “And how do they reconcile that with what they claim to be their Christian faith?”
  3. Learn to be bilingual. Because our nation is becoming more pluralistic in terms of religious belief, learn to hear what candidates mean even when they don’t use God talk.
    And, if you want to get supporters from the secular/humanist camp to support your version of immigration reform, make your argument in terms of universal human principles instead of quoting the Bible.
    “I want someone who is motivated by religion,” Hayes said, “as long as they can link it to other justifiable [ways of thinking].”
  4. Character does count. Hayes noted that few of the advisers George W. Bush picked were known for being religious, and although Bush himself might really have been sincere in the way he presented himself to voters, “I don’t think he has been a strong enough person to stand up to all those who told him what to do.”

All three scholars agreed that a key issue that has deeply religious ramifications is the tension between voting for my self interest vs. the common good.