Faith And Politics Do Mix For Democrats

In 2004, 62 percent of weekly churchgoers voted for President Bush. And a recent CBS News poll shows a large majority of voters continue to want their candidates to have "strong" religious beliefs.

Typically, these numbers would benefit Republicans, but as The Early Show national correspondent Jeff Glor reports, during this election we could be in for a change.

Across the political spectrum, the presidential hopefuls are paying homage to the Almighty. From faith forums to stump speeches, talking about religion has become a political necessity.

"Seventy percent of Americans say that they want their president to be a person of faith. And that's a pretty astoundingly high number," says Time magazine's Amy Sullivan, who is writing a book about the role of religion within politics.

Sullivan believes the emergence of faith in politics stems from Watergate, when the nation felt deceived and betrayed by President Richard Nixon. "Americans care about more than just the policy positions of the candidate," she explains. "They care about what their character is, kind of what their moral grounding is. And religion is one kind of proxy for that."

Dr. Joel Hunter, one of the nation's leading evangelical voices, tells Glor it is "very, very unlikely" that an atheist could be elected president. "Many of us want at least somebody who has some sense of a higher accountability," Hunter says. "You want to elect somebody who you can have some confidence in personally."

As mega-churches continue going up across the country, including the $42 million building being put up by Hunter near Orlando, Fla., the debate over religion and politics is shifting.

"There is a shift. There is a broadening. I think, Christians are saying that these other things are important too because they were important to Jesus," Hunter says.

Hunter is among a group of conservative evangelicals trying to broaden the political discussion beyond personal moral issues like abortion and gay marriage. He wants religious voters to consider issues he puts in the category of social morality.

"Social morality is where you address the needs of your neighbor. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. So you're concerned about poverty, you're concerned about disease; you're concerned about the environment," Hunter says.

"You talk about the environment a great deal. That's an Al Gore issue," Glor remarks.

But Hunter disagrees. "No it's not. It's a biblical issue," he says. "Our first order in the Bible is to take care of the garden and to protect it."

Democrats, at a disadvantage among religious voters for some 20 years, see a chance.

"Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us," Sen. Barack Obama said at a campaign event in Connecticut.

Hunter's reaction to the Obama's statement? "Well, I think objectively he's correct," he says.

While 78 percent of evangelicals voted for President Bush in 2004, Hunter says there is no reason a Democrat can't win over the faithful. "It's really bad for Christianity to be in the pocket of any one political party. It's just totally inappropriate," he says.

Then there are the candidates themselves.

"We have never seen this many Democratic politicians who are both so sincerely religious but also very comfortable with the language of faith," Time's Amy Sullivan points out.

So far in this campaign, the Democratic frontrunners are being more vocal about faith than their Republican counterparts. "I don't think Republicans can get back their monopoly on religion if only because the only reason they had it in the first place was that Democrats ceded that ground to them. Now that Democrats have kind of turned a corner, this is a completely different game," Sullivan says.

What remains to be seen is how this will translate into votes. The Republican ground operation reaching out to religious voters far surpasses Democratic operations, but along with the personas of leading democratic candidates, the entire landscape is changing.