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Religion And Politics Don't Mix, Major Religious Groups Tell Presidential Candidates

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Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum addresses the Ohio Christian Alliance conference Saturday, Feb. 18, in Columbus, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum addresses the Ohio Christian Alliance conference Saturday, Feb. 18, in Columbus, Ohio.

After Rick Santorum ignited controversy over the weekend by saying President Barack Obama has a "phony" and "different theology" that's not "based on the Bible," and amid ongoing discomfort among some politicians and religious figures over Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, a coalition of major religious organizations is calling on presidential candidates to keep religion out of politics.

On Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Interfaith Alliance released a "statement of principles" on religion in political campaigns that calls on candidates vying for office to feel comfortable explaining their religious conviction to voters but also warn that "there is a point when an emphasis on religion becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.”

The call has been endorsed by 14 major Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh organizations, and asks candidates to:

  • Attempt to fulfill the promise of America by seeking to serve and be responsive to the full range of constituents, irrespective of their religion.
  • Conduct their campaigns without appeals, overt or implicit, for support based upon religion.
  • Reject appeals or messages to voters that reflect religious prejudice, bias, or stereotyping.
  • Engage in vigorous debate on important and disputed issues, without deliberately encouraging division in the electorate along religious lines, or between voters who characterize themselves as religious and voters who do not.

“Candidates do not have to check their religion at the door of the offices they seek. But they need to understand that they serve people of other faiths and of no faith. Resorting to religious language that sets people of faith against each other harms political discourse and sows religious discord,” said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in a statement.

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman encouraged candidates to "avoid overt appeals for support on the basis of religion" and set a "proper tone" when it comes to discussing their beliefs and those of others.

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance, said he has been "deeply disturbed by the disproportionate role religion has played during recent election cycles with some candidates seeming to be running for ‘pastor-in-chief’" and that "a line is crossed when a candidate implies that they should receive your vote because of their faith."

Religion has played a significant role in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, with appeals to evangelicals propelling former Senator Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to wins in places such as Iowa and South Carolina. Polls have shown that many voters are uncomfortable with electing a president who is a Mormon, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Romney. Mormons believe in Jesus Christ and see themselves as Christians, although many other Christians question the church's theology.

The recent controversy over federal requirements for employers to provide contraception coverage under health insurance plans has fueled accusations that the Obama administration has a war on religion. After Santorum's comments on Obama's theology, the Rev. Franklin Graham appeared on television Tuesday and said that Obama is seen as a "son of Islam." Inaccurate rumors that Obama is secretly a Muslim have persisted since he was a senator.

"Religion in Political Campaigns -- An Interfaith Statement of Principles" was signed by: the American Islamic Congress; American Jewish Committee; Anti-Defamation League; Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Interfaith Alliance; Islamic Society of North America; Hindu American Foundation; Muslim Advocates; National Council of Churches USA; Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Sikh Coalition; Union for Reform Judaism; The United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society; and the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries.

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