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2000-03-17 00:15
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As tension rises in US presidential race, religion becomes a key
issue
ENI-00-0080

By Chris Herlinger
New York, 7 March (ENI)--As voters in 16 of 50 US states prepare
to go to the polls in the critical "Super Tuesday" presidential
election primaries today, the role of religion has became a
prominent factor in this year's presidential race, particularly
within the Republican Party.

The primaries allow political parties to choose their candidate
for the presidential election, which will take place in November.


For weeks the two leading Republican candidates for president,
George W. Bush, governor of the state of Texas and son of a
former president, and Senator John McCain, from the state of
Arizona, have traded accusations about religion and religious
bigotry that have startled observers and voters alike. The row
over religion may well prove important in deciding the outcome of
the Republican presidential nomination, if not the presidential
election itself.

That dispute - fuelled by Senator McCain accusing Governor Bush
of an anti-Catholic bias - "has let a red-white-and-blue genie
out of the bottle and its recorking seems unlikely during the
general election campaign this fall" according to political
analyst Francis Clines, writing in the New York Times on 5 March.


What some have described as "campaign holy wars" may seem a bit
odd to outsiders, as all of the leading presidential candidates -
McCain, Bush, and, on the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore
and former Senator Bill Bradley, are all members of mainline
Protestant denominations. Yet of the four only Bradley - the most
politically liberal - has said he will not discuss his personal
religious faith in the context of the presidential election.

The feud among the Republicans began during last month's hotly
contested presidential primary in the state of South Carolina.
There, Governor Bush made an appearance at Bob Jones University,
a Protestant fundamentalist college that has long attracted
Republican presidential candidates to speak at its campus,
including Governor Bush's father, former president George Bush.

McCain, who has fashioned an independent campaign appealing to
Democrats and independents as well as Republicans, then sharply
criticised Governor Bush, pointing out that the university did
not allow dating between members of different racial groups on
its campus and had issued statements in the past comparing
Catholicism to a cult.

Governor Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University may have
contributed to his defeat in the presidential primary in
Michigan, a state with a strong Catholic community. He was the
target in Michigan of a phone campaign suggesting he was
anti-Catholic.

Governor Bush eventually said he regretted not speaking out on
the dating ban at Bob Jones University - which has since been
lifted amid the controversy - and he also apologised to Roman
Catholics for failing to distance himself from the school's views
on their church.

But the controversy did not end there. McCain went further,
upbraiding two leading Christian conservatives and Bush allies,
clergyman Jerry Falwell and broadcaster and former presidential
candidate Pat Robertson. On 28 February, McCain described the two
men as "agents of intolerance".

While Falwell and Robertson are not highly popular among US
voters as a whole, they command respect from an important voting
bloc within the Republican party. Many conservative Christians
are angry at McCain's attack on the two men.

Analysts have been having a field day over this row involving
politics and religion. Martin Kettle, Washington correspondent
for the Guardian newspaper in London, said that the one thing
that could be stated for certain "amid the swirling fortunes of
this 2000 presidential roller coaster" is that no "future
presidential candidate will go back to Bob Jones University in a
hurry".

"George W. Bush's visit, and his casual indifference to what it
implied, have triggered a backlash against the evangelical
conservative religious right in the Republican electorate,"
Kettle wrote.

But others have suggested that it is McCain, and not Governor
Bush, who might suffer most in this controversy. Not only are
many Republicans shocked at McCain's attack on Falwell and
Robertson, but many commentators were sceptical about how many
Catholic voters McCain had won over to his side.

The New York Times quoted Scott Appleby of Notre Dame University
who suggested that McCain's appeal to US Roman Catholics - many
of whom voted with conservative Protestants to support Ronald
Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections - was "more a relic of
history" than a description of modern Catholic reality. McCain
"went one day too far" in his attack against Falwell and
Robertson, according to Appleby.

New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels wrote on 4
March that the Catholic Church "takes more nasty hits weekly on
cable television than yearly from Bob Jones [University]. Until
campaign workers for Senator John McCain began alerting
Michigan's Roman Catholics three weeks ago, it is questionable
whether there were enough Roman Catholics upset by anything
emanating from Bob Jones University to fill an old-fashioned
confessional."